personal, travel

Scraped Knees

A clumsy, hard fall on the rough hotel room floor left me with scraped knees and a short but distinctive spell of embarrassment. A few days later when the raspberry scab was fully formed it triggered a flurry of memories from my childhood. Scraped knees are a part of every kid’s childhood and it all came rushing.

Photo by Marcelo Moreira from Pexels

Kids partake in risky activities all the time and I was no different. Playing on uneven ground, running from strays, jumping over fences, climbing walls, hiding in the bushes and countless other escapades. That’s a lot of scraped knees.

Scraped knees become a distant memory after you enter adulthood. This last incident happened in a foreign country, far away from home, in a new environment. I’ve been in the US for only 3 months. The similarities between trying out new things as a kid risking scraped knees and adjusting to new ways of living by making a fool of yourself repeatedly became acute after this minor mishap. 

During the time I was planning the trip, I was told by colleagues and friends how difficult it was for them to adjust in a different country. All of them cited the inability to develop/maintain new relationships and fundamental differences in ways of living as barriers to adjustment. 

I don’t feel like this, so far. What explains this? An above-average sense of familiarity with the culture, my below-average need for people and relationships, the presence of a handful of acquaintances in every city I’ve been to (thanks to Twitter) and the transient nature of this gestation period where everyday life is defined by a lack of routine rather than a fixed set of rituals are all good candidates. These can explain some of it but here’s the kicker – the courage to ask and being open to experimentation and failure.

When I reflect on the past three months, I now realize why many people find the transition difficult. Adjusting to a completely new set of rules – both spoken and unspoken is hard work. It also comes with the risk of being outed as an outsider or feeling embarrassed at each juncture. 

I’ve struggled with the simplest of tasks – how to engage with strangers, where to find napkins at a restaurant, how to order a meaningful, tasty salad and not 10 random things mixed together, how to hold a glass of wine, hell, how to pronounce their names? Even basic etiquette relating to tipping, holding the door, greeting people and walking on the street needs learning. Interfacing with a new environment brings out the inner child in you and kids are excellent at learning via mimicry. This is a humbling experience in adulthood. Scraped knees and bruised egos take longer to heal. 

People moving to new cultures fall broadly into two categories – ones who stay among themselves and look for their communities and those who engage meaningfully with reality on a daily basis, trying to integrate in an accelerated manner. It largely comes down to whether or not you want to change and more importantly, if your being is amenable to said changes.

There is no correct answer here but the latter can be fun if you stop taking yourself too seriously. It’s okay to fall sometimes.

Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

An interesting sidetrack here is that of folkways (a unit of social analysis or “ways of being”) on Ribbonfarm titled The Missing Folkways of Globalization. It talks about globalization and its effect on the social landscape, describing how people adapt or adopt in new environments.


Dealing with Anxiety

“The moment I step inside the classroom, it feels like I’m under a spotlight.” – 19 year old me to a friend at college. Countless such incidents later, I’ve started to come to terms with my anxiety. In the process I’ve learnt a lot, both about myself and the condition. 

My Story 

If you’ve ever had anxiety issues, you know how debilitating it can be. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. Until I was 17, I didn’t even have a vocabulary to process it. And only recently have I understood the pathology and figured out how to manage it. Better late than never as they say. 

This is a guide on dealing with anxiety, largely based off of my own experiences. Some background first. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anxiety is a common theme among many of my earliest memories of school. Despite being a relatively good orator, I was utterly petrified of getting up on stage. I remember pleading with my class teacher to not send me on stage for conducting the school assembly. I did it a few times though, often stuttering through the note I was supposed to read out. 

Anxiety is easy to observe and is largely a visceral experience. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach and my heart-rate quickening whenever I had the answers to a question and at times when I was asked to explain something to the class. Bottom line, I was a stupidly anxious kid.

Fast forward to when I first moved to Bombay full time for JEE coaching. I recall telling my parents and aunt about some of my really strange dreams. I used to have dreams about math problems that were nonsensical (recursive, circular in nature or often with missing information) and subconsciously struggle to solve them in my head while being aware that it had no answer. A lot of my mornings were waking up mired in frustration of not having solved the problem. I never paid much attention to it though, not realizing how deeply anxious I was the whole time. 

Moving on to my time at IIT Bombay. I wasn’t bad at understanding whatever was being taught in class but I had severe performance anxiety which had a particularly negative effect on my exams. I once almost failed a physics course because I blanked out during the exam. Course presentations always seemed like a chore to me because I was so nervous the entire time, practically hyperventilating. 

Internship interviews followed a similar trend. More often than not, my anxiety got the better of me, preventing me from putting on my best show. The first week of the internship season was particularly hard for me. I had failed to clear the interviews for Deutsche Bank and Nomura after hours of interviewing. The following week I had an interview with Capital One, one that I had mentally given up on. It was the first interview where I went in with a truly no-fucks-given attitude and I did surprisingly well. This was an important learning moment for me but I had yet to internalize the lesson. 

Placements were no different. Despite telling myself repeatedly that it’s not a big deal, my anxiety was through the roof on Day 1. I completely blew my first interview at 8 am in the morning and the spillover effect ensured that I was left reeling and helpless through the next 5 hours, unable to think clearly even the simplest of problems. I came back to my room, absolutely gutted, angry at myself for having blown such an opportunity. At night, I had given up, entered the no-fucks-given zone and managed to clear the interviews for McKinsey. History does not repeat itself but often rhymes. Now I had seen this in action. 

Cue to today, where I had to defend my Master’s thesis in front of a panel of 5 professors and what inspired me to share this story. In a similar situation just last semester, I was extremely anxious about the whole thing, not sleeping properly, skipping meals and obsessing over the smallest details in my presentation until the last minute.

Today was different. Up until the night before, I had zero anxiety. Although at night I did dream of being questioned in my thesis defense and being unable to answer (not exaggerating). This was a profound realization for me. I understood and accepted that fear, the source of all anxiety is deep rooted within me. Imagine my horror, going to sleep perfectly anxiety-free only to find that your mind is pulling out these threads laced with fear all night. I woke up feeling terrible, all confidence lost. It took me an hour to regain my composure. I did excellent on my presentation and all went well in the end. 

How did I go from being an anxious kid to a slightly less anxious kid?

Here’s how. 

Dealing with Anxiety

The premise of how I managed to bring anxiety under control boils down to two things – understanding its pathology and invoking mindfulness (deliberate focus on the present moment).

Why is understanding the pathology of anxiety important?

I’ll answer that with another question. Why are people afraid of ghosts? Why do people have irrational fears? Fear arises from not knowing. From the unknown. Understanding a phenomenon, breaking it down into cause and effect, casts a psychological safety net and reduces fear. 

As Maslow pointed out in his 1943 seminal paper ‘A theory of Motivation’ [1] under safety needs: 

“Another indication of the child’s need for safety is his preference for some kind of undisrupted routine or rhythm. He seems to want a predictable, orderly world. For instance, injustice, unfairness, or inconsistency in the parents seems to make a child feel anxious and unsafe.”
“Perhaps one could express this more accurately by saying that the child needs an organized world rather than an unorganized or unstructured one.”
“As the child grows up, sheer knowledge and familiarity as well as better motor development make these ‘dangers’ less and less dangerous and more and more manageable. Throughout life it may be said that one of the main conative functions of education is this neutralizing of apparent dangers through knowledge, e.g., I am not afraid of thunder because I know something about it.”
“Here too we may list science and philosophy in general as partially motivated by the safety needs”

I think this insight is profound.

Have you ever thought of knowledge as a shield against fear? Science, the understanding of natural phenomena and making predictions is humanity’s attempt to achieve safety needs; like the child who wants his world to be predictable where he’s God.

I digress but I think this has a lot of implications for understanding why people behave the way they do, why people seek knowledge and a host of other questions.  

Why is being in the present moment important?

I’ve found that mindfulness or the act of being in the present moment helps tremendously with anxiety. Panic attacks take control of both your thoughts and your body. Slippery slopes that end in failure, rapid breathing and heart rates are all symptomatic of anxiety. Consciously trying to stay in the present prevents you from losing control over your thoughts and helps your body recover.

Understanding Anxiety

My belief is that most anxiety stems from fear. 

Fear of failure. 

Fear of rejection. 

Fear of being made fun of. 

Fear of not being good enough.

If you reflect upon moments when anxiety takes hold of you and observe your thoughts, fear will emerge as a common theme. Once you’ve internalized this lesson, and given up on this fear that is an artifact of mere association with other people’s judgement, you will be free. Free to create, express and live. This may sound preachy but having been on the other side for so long, I now have a new-found appreciation for freedom. 

It is incredibly difficult to suspend self-esteem and self-worth from societal judgement since we are conditioned that way but I strongly feel that this is the most important thing to practice. Once the cause (fear) is eliminated, the effect (anxiety) is mitigated.  

Invoking Self-Awareness – Being present in the moment

Looking back at instances where I was anxious, another theme emerged. I switched to an involuntary response system and my cognition became rather poor. This meant loss of control over both thought (foggy thinking) and bodily responses (shaking, stuttering).  

Over time, I’ve learnt to anticipate this feeling and observe it in debug mode. Once I’m aware that this is happening, I force myself to switch back to conscious thinking and doing. This alone has made me a lot more confident in situations where I would otherwise be anxious.

So that’s how I did it. 

A mix of rationalization (classic human, right?) and some thought control. 

Feel free to ask if you have any questions. 

books, personal

Externalization of Blame and Risk, and its Consequences

Externalization of Blame (and therefore Risk) can be explained simply as follows – 

Claim credit when things go right. 

Blame the failures on luck.

This is the central theme of Taleb’s new book – Skin in the Game – or avoiding asymmetry between risk and reward.  

Naive actors – I’m sure most people (including me) have done this at some point in their lives because it’s the easy way out and the ego remains unscathed. I’ll make my case for why this should be avoided at the end of this piece. 

Evil actors – In other cases, systems are gamed such that there is asymmetry between risks and rewards.

Let’s look at some of the consequences of this seemingly innocuous phenomenon that is pervasive in society, in organizations and in our personal lives.

An example from Skin in the Game that highlights this asymmetry at the societal level – 

“The Bob Rubin trade? Robert Rubin, a former secretary of the United States Treasury, one of those who sign their names on the banknote you just used to pay for coffee, collected more than $120 million in compensation from Citibank in the decade preceding the crash of 2008. When the bank, literally insolvent, was rescued by the taxpayer, he didn’t write any check – he invoked uncertainty as an excuse. Heads he wins, tails he shouts ‘Black Swan’ [1].”

[1] A Black Swan event has the following attributes – “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact … Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” 

An example from The Gervais Principle  and Taleb’s book explains why organizations that fail to appropriate full blame eventually die –

“… Employees accept blame but only in inverse proportion to their self-perceived status. Due to the murkiness of collective responsibility … self-perceived status is the only available basis for dividing up blame or credit. If everybody believes they are above average (Lake Wobegon Effect [2]), they will assign more blame to others and less to themselves, and convince themselves that their partitioning of the blame is fair. 
If each person’s culpability for a failure is taken at their own evaluation, you will have a net-deficit in the total accounted-for-blame. Conversely, with a success, the sum of self-perceived credit attributions is greater than the credit actually available to go around…”
Blame that goes unaccounted for accumulates as organizational dark matter eventually leading to a blowup. (paraphrased) 
– Venkatesh Rao, The Gervais Principle. 

“But not to worry, if we do not decentralize and distribute responsibility (of blame) it will happen by itself, the hard way: a system that does not have a mechanism of skin in the game, with a buildup of imbalances, will eventually blow-up and self-repair that way. If it survives.”
– Taleb, Skin in the Game

[2] The Lake Wobegone Effect – a slight (but interesting) diversion here. 

The Lake Wobegon effect, a natural human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities, was coined by Professor David G Myers in honor of the fictional town. The characterization of the fictional location, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. There’s considerable research that shows self-reported averages are higher than actual averages – exam scores, height, income, the whole gamut. Everyone likes to believe they are “special”. 

And finally, at the personal level, absence of skin in the game, evading personal responsibility, or externalizing risk and blame, is one of the main reasons why we don’t grow as individuals. 

It is easy to shrug off responsibility and claim it was bad luck, but the real learning lies in accepting and examining why things went wrong. 

I know of only one organization that has tried doing this at the organizational level – Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates where brutal honesty and radical transparency reigns. It’s manifestation – Baseball Cards for each employee. Whether this is sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. 

The key takeaway here is that accept reality as it is and move on. Avoid delusions, stories concocted by the mind, hidden risks, that will blow up in your face someday. 

books, personal, Psychology

The Hidden Cost of Mild Embarrassment

I recently finished reading The Undoing Project – the story of Daniel Kanheman and Amos Tversky (two Israeli psychologists who changed how we think about our decision making). It is a gripping read that highlights the stark contrast between the two personalities and how it gave rise to one of the most important collaborations in recent history, one that I would recommend people read after they’ve finished reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. 

A quote from Amos in the book that made me reflect hard on the kind of life I’ve lived – 

“Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment,’ said his friend Avishai Margalit, ‘and he himself decided very early on it was not worth it.”

I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember and it has dictated a significant portion of how I have conducted myself both in public and private. This is something I’ve observed in friends with anxiety too, so maybe people who suffer from it will also be able to relate to this. (I try to avoid discussing personal strengths and weaknesses unless absolutely necessary, as in this case. It just adds some credibility and gives context to how the idea came to be).

My daily behavior – things such as asking questions in class or choosing to wear jeans over shorts or simply talking to people were all determined by one thing – to avoid drawing any attention to myself and avoiding embarrassment at all cost. I can think of a few more – not having the guts to cold call and email people for a second year internship, not asking for help from friends and seniors for the fear of being judged and embarrassed. The list goes on. 

What I was missing however when going through life was the cost. The cost of avoiding mild embarrassment. More importantly, the hidden cost associated with choosing not to put myself out there which could’ve led to good things. Let me explain. 

Nassim Taleb in his book Black Swan defines a Black Swan as follows: 

“An event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Anxious people like myself and many others live by the avoidance principle. It’s just that this tendency is exaggerated in people who suffer from anxiety. What they fail to realize is that they’re missing out on opportunities – some of them Black Swans. These don’t come often and they have the potential to make a huge change to your life trajectory. 

Lesson – Put yourself out there. Even if that means being subjected to slight embarrassment at times. 

I can hardly say that I’ve managed to incorporate this into my life on a daily basis but acceptance is the first step to recovery, so there’s still hope. 

In essence, the lesson here is not that profound, is it?

It might seem like it boils down to generic advice that people have offered me at times – stop caring about others’ opinions. That’s really easier said than done. 

Most ideas and lessons, such as these are not truly extraordinary in what they have to offer but need to be framed appropriately in order to have the required impact. 

Telling someone to put himself/herself out there without making them realize the opportunity cost of not doing so will never be impactful. 

As always, comments and criticisms appreciated. 🙂