My Life Lessons
Vinod, recently on your 23rd birthday, you asked me what advice I had for you as you entered adulthood. I believed I had a few life lessons that I should impart to Varun and you, but at the moment you asked me, my thoughts were not coherent enough to articulate. But, I recall I did talk about a few half-baked ideas which I am not sure made an impression on you. Over the following weeks I let your question sit in my mind and wrote down ideas as they came to me. The act of writing has helped to clarify my ideas which are starting to congeal into a personal philosophy. In the paragraphs that follow I will explain what I have come to believe through reflection on my own experiences and by learning from others. I don’t know if this is what you wanted to hear when you asked the question, but thanks anyway for the opening. One approach to communicating life lessons is to put forth some number of rules for a happy/good life. However, I don’t believe that the wisdom we seek can be captured by a set of rules. Instead you need to master a set of practices that will help you respond to situations with wisdom.
All of us want to be happy in life. But realize that happiness is an attitude of mind, rather than something external. It is possible to cultivate a sense of happiness in spite of setbacks that we will inevitably encounter in life. A few things can help to develop a happy attitude: having a short memory for failures, hurts, and disappointments of the past; a willingness to delay gratification and a general sense of optimism that setbacks are never permanent and can be overcome. My advice to you is to lead a life of meaning rather than happiness because you have to find happiness within yourself.
You can find meaning in making a difference to others — your family, your community and society at large. You can also find meaning in doing work that completely engages you and that you find fulfilling. You will have to balance your work with your responsibilities to yourself, your family, your community and others who depend on you one way or another — including people whose careers you might manage. Your work, while fulfilling, will have its banal aspects. There will be moments where you will need to do what is “important to do” rather than what you “like to do”. We spend more hours working than on any other activity so it pays to be careful in choosing the type of work you do. Choose work that you love to do. Salary, perks and title cannot make up for tedium. Ideally, the work you do can be part of your life’s mission — you could be making something that improves other people’s lives. At your workplace, make a positive impact on the people around you — helping your juniors grow in their careers, solving problems that help your organization achieve its goals.
Good relationships with your partner, your family, friends and colleagues is the other thing that gives meaning to our lives. The highly influential Harvard Study of Adult Development, found that close relationships, even more than wealth, social class, IQ or genes, can protect you from life’s discontents, improve your physical and mental health..
You will face challenges at work and in your relationships. My experience has taught me a few qualities that have helped me in meeting these challenges with equanimity and avoiding making the situation difficult for others. These are: clarity in thought and action, mindfulness and compassion. These qualities take a lot of practice to develop. These will orient you appropriately in life and will help you figure out what other qualities to cultivate.
Clarity is about understanding yourself, other people and how the world works. To understand ourselves, we need to understand how human minds work. Through science we have a good understanding of how the mind works. Our minds have two modes of thinking — Daniel Kahneman in his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, calls them System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is fast. It’s the one that drives our automatic responses. Evolution has fine tuned our System 1 mind for speed and efficient information processing. Speed is necessary to keep us safe and avoid dangers. The System 1 mind incorporates evolved adaptive behavior — habits developed over a lifetime and learned behavior (such as driving a car). Since it acts fast and automatically, it can overreact, producing biased interpretations and actions. The other mode is the slow deliberative mode that Kahneman refers to as System 2. This is the mode we operate in when we face an unfamiliar situation — when we choose to gather more information and deliberate about what action to take. Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” has an illuminating metaphor to describe how the two systems interact. Our minds are like a rider on the back of an elephant, he says. The elephant represents System 1 — the automatic processes that guide much of our behavior and the rider sitting on top represents System 2 — the slow, deliberative mind. The elephant is hard to control and the rider’s difficulty in controlling the elephant explains many puzzles about our mental life, such as why it is difficult to give up and change our habits. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
Psychologists have identified a number of cognitive biases ingrained in our elephant mind, but I will call out the three big ones that factor into how we view ourselves and our relationships. These have to do with the biased way in which we judge ourselves relative to others. We tend to attribute success to our own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors. We do the opposite with other people- we explain others’ bad behavior or failure by pointing to their flaws and attribute their success to situational factors. For example, if someone cuts into line in front of us in the grocery store, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the person is in a hurry and needs to get home to take care of a child. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so. We tend to reject negative feedback about ourselves and ignore our flaws and bad behavior — we do this to protect our fragile egos from threat and injury. Another type of bias is the illusion that we have more control over what happens in our lives than we actually do. Luck plays a bigger role in our lives than we give it credit for. As Leonard Mlodinow has discussed in his highly readable book, “The Drunkard’s Walk” humans have the tendency to look for patterns and assign meaning to them, often attributing these to our control over events. As the stoic philosopher Epitectus succinctly put it: “Some things are up to us and others are not”. Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer also captures this wisdom well: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.
We cannot overcome our biases unless we are aware of them and acknowledge them. How do we become aware of our biases? Techniques of self-reflection and meditation can help. Take a pause during your day and reflect on the events of the day — the decisions you made, moments when you felt anger, upset or said things you regretted later. Reflect on how you interpreted the moments of anger, upset or conflict — were biases in play, could you have interpreted the moments differently? When you meditate you will notice that your mind is constantly buzzing with thoughts and memories — thoughts and memories which we may not be aware of as we go about our daily activities. But these thoughts and memories, colored with emotion determine how we frame situations which in turn determine how we respond. Meditation can help you quiet your mind and over time overcome being trapped in destructive patterns of behavior. Besides meditation, practising mindfulness in every moment of your life will help you calm your mind, improve your relationships and increase your productivity. Being mindful means to be fully present and focused on the activity you are engaged in at the moment. When you are talking to someone you are entirely focused on the conversation. When you are eating you are fully focused on the food and the eating, not on the TV or your phone. You don’t allow distractions.
Compassion towards others and yourself is a great virtue and good for your physical and mental well being. Scientists believe that compassion is innate in humans and other animals, but we can cultivate it further. Understand and feel others’ suffering and act to reduce it. Be compassionate towards yourself as well. Don’t beat yourself up for failures or mistakes. Learn from them and move forward. Once you understand the role of luck in life you will understand that success and failure is often not in one’s control. Like the other qualities I mentioned, your capacity for compassion can be expanded through practice. There are even training programs for that.
A few final thoughts. Spend time amidst nature — discover the wonder and the beauty in it. Don’t lose the sense of play. Cultivate hobbies. Read, listen — learn from others as you would from your own experiences. Speak and write;, one of the best ways to achieve clarity — as I have done here — is to write about what you have learnt.