Pray tell, what is a weekend? Part I.

If any of you have seen ‘Downton Abbey’ you know that Granny makes the whole show. If I have one aspiration in life, it is to become like Granny once I become older. Is there anything that fazes her? Not much, but the concept of a weekend does. At the beginning of the show (I think it was the first season) Granny meets Mathew for the first time. He attempts to explain what he does for a living (a shocking concept all on its own). But he stumps her completely is when he tries to explain how is work is structured. How his days are divided into what we, of the working class call ‘weekdays’ and ‘weekends’. It is an iconic scene to be sure, and it makes me laugh every time.

But seriously though, what is a weekend? I’ve all but forgotten. I haven’t had a free weekend in about 2 months and I am fuming. I don’t mind working hard, but this is getting to be a bit much. I think I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. Jobs wouldn’t be half as intolerable if people understood boundaries and gave you time off to do other things. What is with this obsession we have with our work? Let me give you an example. I work in an industry where we are always being told to give our 150% to the job. Being told that nothing matters as much as client satisfaction. Being told that being available and working around the clock are some of the biggest assets we have at our disposal. I can’t tell you how much I hate hearing these things. I disagree with all of it. Yeah sure, do your job well. And then forget about it. Should you be giving 150% to your job? Absolutely not people. You should, at best, on a good day, when you are feeling generous, give about 50% to your job and save the rest of it for the things you enjoy. Drinking coffee with friends. Watching the new Batman in theatres (totally worth it). Chilling in a bookshop. 50%. At best. Is there anything more important than client satisfaction? Oh yes. Enjoying time off. Learning a new skill. Afternoon naps on your days off. And should you work around the clock to give the clients (and your organization) everything you’ve got? I think you can guess my answer.

I just wish someone would explain to my bosses what a weekend is. Like they did with Granny. And I hope they start to respect time off a little bit more.

It is just a job

I read somewhere that the idea that you have to ‘love your job’ is a capitalist myth. I can’t remember the last time I agreed with something so wholeheartedly. I always hear about these mythical people who love their jobs. Someone, somewhere has a friend of a friend who is really happy in their job and love waking up on Mondays.

Now, I’m not trying to bring the mood down. I am sure there are some people who have been lucky enough to find work in a field they enjoy. But even so, the minute you attach money and deadlines to any activity, it can’t help but lose some of its charm. At least, that is what I think. Like, I used to love painting. And then people started paying me for it and commissioning stuff. And then all of a sudden, I didn’t want to go anywhere near my paints. And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I mean, isn’t this the dream? That you have a hobby you love, and then you commercialize it. Isn’t this what everyone means when they say, “if you love what you do, you won’t ever work a day in your life.” Sure, yes. Or you could be working all the time. And as much as I like something, I can’t constantly be doing one thing and feel happy about it.

Which I feel is the central issue with how our jobs and lives are structured right now. And it took me some time to realize this. The first time I quit my job (the only time, but it feels more dramatic saying it like this) I thought I hated my job. That I couldn’t imagine going the rest of my life only doing this one thing. Then I realized that that was the issue. It wasn’t that I hated my job per se (I’m actually half decent at it, and when it comes down to it, the actual work I do is enjoyable enough). I just hated that the only thing I did was my job. There was no time for anything else in my life. I wouldn’t say I ever fell into the category of people who ‘love’ their jobs (if indeed such people exist) but I could tolerate it well enough if it gave me the resources to do some of the other things I liked. The most important resource being, of course, time.

Which got me thinking. Why did I feel like I never had the time to do anything else? I’ve come to the conclusion (and this is a work in progress, so I might come back and tweak this conclusion a few times) that it is the way we are trained to think. The way they make us think about our time and how much of it we owe to our workplaces. By ‘they’ of course I mean our omnipotent capitalist overlords. From the moment I started working the overwhelming consensus was that people who went ‘above and beyond’ what was required were the ones that will succeed in this field.

Like my orientation week. I was fresh out of college and very excited to be starting this job – my first job. I remember we were flown out to a new city and put up in a fancy hotel and made to sit through a bunch of talks in some fancy convention center. All designed to impress new recruits, which it did. During the course of the many talks I attended one of the speakers started talking about what it means to be ‘successful’ in this job, in this field. He started off by saying all of us have to have our own definition of success. This was not a one shoe fits all situation. Fair enough. Then he spoke about how to someone success might mean executing the best deals (whatever that means) and working round the clock to have the highest profit margin. To someone else success might mean not working on the best deals (again, whatever that means) but instead having time to spend with their family on the weekends. The way in which he spoke, it was clear that he thought the first person was normal and the second one was the kind they didn’t want at this firm. Spending time enjoying yourself outside of the office? What a dud.

This talk was followed by a lady who spoke to us about ‘firm perception’. She told us the story of a fresh associate who, while initially showed a lot of promise, turned out not to be someone the firm wanted to invest in in the long run. The reason? He didn’t understand what ‘loyalty’ meant. In the end, the actual offense turned out to be entirely anti-climatic. The poor kid had made a post on his social media at 3 am on a Sunday night talking about ‘late nights’ in the office which, in the eyes of the firm, made them look bad. So where was the disloyalty? Was it in talking about an actual thing that happened? Was it in talking about how you were spending all your time in the office? I think it was in not enjoying the fact that you spend all your time in the office. Because to my firm, this was the worst thing someone could do. Admit that they didn’t want to be spending all of their time doing this one job.

And even after the orientation, the idea that you have to make your job your entire existence is driven home to the point of exhaustion in so many ways. I have had superiors tell me that the best way to judge how well you’re doing is by looking at how much work you have. If you’re overworked, you’re doing well. What a twisted way of looking at things. Not only did it make me put in more hours than I needed to, it also made me feel guilty for not being worked to the bone all the time. And that stuck with me till I had to quit because of a burnout.

While I was unemployed, and when I tried to commercialize my hobby, I realized a couple of things which I think have helped me in coming back to work with a more balanced perspective. Firstly, that I didn’t want to get paid to paint. It would be nice if someone at some point liked the things I made and wanted to buy it. But I wasn’t going to turn it into a commercial enterprise. Because that turned it into a job, and I found out that I didn’t love any job. Then I realized that I actually liked having a job that gave me a steady income, as long as I wasn’t expected to love it and dedicate all my time to it. So, basically, I wanted a job I could just about tolerate for the most part and like in bits, and then have some time and mental headspace out of it to do the multitude of other things I enjoyed.

I take exception to how people at my job still want the newer kids to go ‘above and beyond’ for the job or give it their ‘150%’ and what not. I think it might be a lot nicer to tell the kids to treat it as a job. Just something you do on weekdays to make some money to enjoy your actual life. Something you can, and indeed should, switch off from whenever you can. You may not love it, but you can like it for the other things it does for you.

Self-awareness to prevent burnout?

I read an article today sent by my employer as a part of a larger series the company is doing on emotional intelligence. They like to do these things once in a while. I work in an industry which has extremely high attrition rates, and so instead of fixing the things that are making people quit in the first place (toxic superiors, unnecessarily long hours, extensive client demands and not enough time to do anything else in your life), they send us videos on how to improve our emotional intelligence by doing breathing exercises. Yeah, true story.

The article is titled, ‘Developing Self-Awareness Helped me prevent Lawyer Burnout‘ and has been written by Ed Andrew. It talks about his journey into building self-awareness – which is allegedly one of the best tools you can possess as a professional in any field, but more specifically this field – after he was diagnosed with cancer. Andrew starts off by talking about how, “the nature of legal practice, which involved long hours, pressure to excel, competition to rise to the top, dismay at repetitive work, fear of failure, and peer pressure is a potential melting pot for stress to build.” Then he goes on to give us a couple of shocking stories about toxic bosses, to highlight how real of an issue burnout is. There are a few helpful pointers in the article on identifying what is causing you stress in the first place and what not, but the article ends with some advice I want to talk about.

Basically, according to this piece, extreme stress is a part of my job and industry and since any real top-down change is unlikely, I had best learn to regulate my own mind and emotions. Some helpful tips on this? Breathing exercises. Again.

I’m not against breathing exercises in the least, don’t get me wrong. But the article has a defeatist tone to it I don’t enjoy. This is something I hear a lot in my industry, that “there isn’t going to be any real change, so you might as well learn to live with it”. Which I do. Because I have no other choice. But I’m uncomfortable with letting the bosses off so easy as well. There are tons of things that could be changed in my workplace (and honestly I think in all workplaces) without negatively impacting the bottom line (which is really, the only thing people are concerned about).

For example, working from home. There have been endless articles on how working from home allows people to work better, be more productive, while also enjoying some semblance of balance. For some reason, a lot of people in the legal industry are against this practice continuing indefinitely. Why? Who knows. Maybe they think we slack off at home. Maybe they think we might get the chance to start side ventures and eventually quit work if we stay at home. Or maybe, they just like the culture of depressing offices brainlessly filled by people at all hours because people are too afraid to leave the place before someone else does (even though the work is done).

Another thing? Working on the weekend. I understand that I work in an industry where people pay a lot of money for our services and so expect to get commensurate output. But I also genuinely believe there is no work that cannot wait till Monday morning. For some reason everyone has gotten into a bad habit of passing work onto their juniors at the end of the week, expecting to see it “first thing Monday morning” so they can “assess it with a fresh pair of eyes” and get it off their schedule. Expecting to see something on a Monday morning means you expect someone to work on it over the weekend, which in most cases, is completely unnecessary.

Punching in and out of the workplace. There is a lot of debate on the continued usefulness of the “billable hour”. If you’re not a legal practitioner, I am afraid I am going to lose you for a bit, but I really want to talk about it. Most law firms work on the idea that you have to bill a certain minimum number of hours in a year, and if you don’t meet this target, they tend to take it out of your pay. People, most of them way smarter than me, have often spoken about how ridiculously high this number is, and how useless the concept is as a whole. But because we are a “traditional” industry, we still insist on it. What does this mean? You have to spend a certain number of hours on your desk even when you don’t have any work to show you are meeting the targets. Which means people waste time they don’t need to on their desks, inventing work they haven’t done to meet their goals.

These are just a few examples of things I can think of that can change to make our lives less stressful. It isn’t as easy to implement as sending out an article on breathing exercises to your employees every once in a while, but I think it might be the slightest bit more effective.

Sticking with it

There is a lot of debate going on about certain comments Prince Harry made on what is being dubbed as the “great resignation”. He said he’s quite happy people have quit jobs that make them unhappy or negatively affect their mental health. He said, and I quote, “Many people around the world have been stuck in jobs that didn’t bring them joy, and now they’re putting their mental health and happiness first. This is something to be celebrated.”

While some people have come forward and said they agree with the statement made, a lot more have (understandably) come out against it. I am the first person to tell people to leave a job (or really, any situation) that makes them unhappy, but the difference here is I only advice people who are on the same level (usually) as me, in terms of their socio-economic standing. I do not pretend to know the lot of people less fortunate than me, and so I keep my mouth shut. This advice is, standalone, not bad advice. If something makes you unhappy, you should do your best to get away from it. You should always try your best to improve your lot. This is a no-brainer. But when such truisms come from the mouths of trust fund babies (such as Prince Harry) who haven’t any idea what it means to hold down a job for survival; people who have no idea what it means to exist in this world without the security of having a multi-million dollar safety net, it becomes a little prickly.

I think I can speak from some experience here. I had a job most would consider a good job (read – high-paying), then I left it because it was stressing me out and I wanted to try out some other things in life, and then I had to come back to it because things didn’t exactly end up going my way. So, I have been a part of the great resignation. And now I am back to work. And let me be categorical when I say that if you have a job, you’re lucky. And if you have a job you love, you are almost mythical.

But more often than not, most of us will have jobs we don’t like. And we will continue to do them (or as in my case, to come back to them) because we need them. I wish there was another way, but for many of us there isn’t. Despite this I think that a lot of us try our best to make our circumstances the happiest they can be. I think a while ago I spoke about the things that make me happy; new habits I have picked up to make my life slightly better. I’m going to talk about a few more resolutions I have taken, re-entering a job I don’t particularly like, in the hopes that it might resonate with some of you. Because regardless of what tone deaf rich people might scream down at us once in a while, many of us can’t afford to let go of our jobs.

Buy cute stationary

The first time I started working I told myself it was going to be a temporary thing. I wasn’t going to be around for a long time. So, I never really felt like spending time on decorating my desk. I’m determined to do it differently this time. I don’t know how long I will be in this job. I have some plans, but you know what they say about plans; man plans and god laughs. So, till the time I am in this job, I am going to treat is as a permanent thing. The first thing I will do is make my desk as cute and homely as possible. Last time around, I didn’t allow myself to buy any of the cute office stationary I would constantly fantasize about. This time, the first thing on my list is a pink colored keyboard. Maybe baby pink. Something that cheers me up whenever I see it. I know some people scoff at this, but there is a lot of value in making your environment as cheerful as possible.

Spend my money

I know that the point above this also had to do with spending money. But this is a little more generalized than buying stationary. In my previous stint as an employed person, I didn’t spend any of the money I made. Because my parents had kindly let me live in their house, I didn’t even need to spend any money on rent. So, while I would slog away at my job, the money would sit pretty in my bank account. This is an extremely privileged position to be in I know, but it also had the effect of making me feel like none of it was worth it. It made me feel like I was working way too hard and enjoying the benefits of it way too little. This time, I am determined to buy myself things I enjoy. Which aren’t too many. Books mainly. And maybe some other things.

Learn to invest

This is another habit I want to get into. This is something I have wanted to do for a while, but I think with money starting to flow in again, it has given me an additional push to learn to manage my personal finances. I often wondered at why we were never taught important things like managing our finances when we were in school. Then I read somewhere that the sole purpose of designing the curriculum in the way that it was designed, was to prevent average citizens (people like you and me) from learning how to do anything practical, so that we stay hooked to bad jobs that make us live paycheck to paycheck. So, it wasn’t so much an oversight on the part of the school not to teach us about financial management as a conscious decision. I plan to change this about my life. I don’t hope to become any sort of financial whiz kid, but I do want to be able to generate a secondary source of income by learning how to invest well. Also, I have recently learnt that one of the worst things you can do with your money is letting it sit in the bank. So, for those of us who have the opportunity to save a percentage of our earnings (i.e., if all our earnings do not go into providing basic necessities) then we should definitely try and invest it in something or the other. Watch ‘The Inside Job‘ if you’re not convinced about the villainy of the banking system.

So, yes, if I had to take a position on the whole Prince Harry x The Great Resignation debate, I would say I’m against his benign advice to quit our jobs, because for most of us the decision isn’t that easy. If I need to, I will definitely hold on to the job I get and try to work our way around this job-related-misery in whatever tiny ways I can.

The Masculinity Contest

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We are all social animals. No secret there. We are social to such an extent that in several studies researchers have found that the single biggest contributor to our happiness in life is the relationships we have and foster. Not just romantic relationships, although these do play a major part in anyone’s life, but the relationships we have within our family, with our friends and with our co-workers, amongst others. On the flip side, nothing is as hurtful or humiliating for us as social rejection. In fact, social rejection activates the same pain centres in our brain as actual physical injury.

I saw a video recently in which the speaker spoke about how to be socially accepted in a workplace is to be, more or less, a man. I’ll explain myself. Corporate workplaces are a male dominated and male infested space. While it is true that more and more women have entered the workforce, but it would be a mistake to think we are anywhere near tilting the balance of power. There are fewer female CEOs of the S&P Fortune 500 companies than there are men named James, William, or Robert. In fact, I remember recently reading that in 2021, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies was at a record high. How many? 41. Out of 500. That is 1/20th of the whole number. So, yes, it isn’t incorrect to say that the workplace, especially the corporate workplace is still a predominantly male space. I work in the legal industry – specifically in the corporate legal sector. There is a very visible trickling down in the number of women at the top, as compared to how many of us join the company as freshers. In my year alone, the firm I worked for took in 4 women and 2 men. But if you look around in the entire office, there are only 2 female partners compared to the 20+ male partners.

Now, what does it take to be a man? When asked, most people will respond with positive qualities; qualities they believe constitute to the make-up of any normal man. Honestly, reliability, chivalry and what not. But, if you probe a little deeper and ask people what it takes to be a ‘real’ man, their responses tend to point to toxic traits such as callousness, ruthlessness, the ability to win and get yours regardless of the cost and hurt to others. You see this in playgrounds all the time. Men assert dominance through physical strength and such other traits which make a ‘real’ man. In adulthood, the nature of such competition as well as the locus, shifts to the workplace. Since most of our social interaction happens in the workspace, and the workspace is dominated by men, it is not surprising that they will incorporate the social norms they have grown up with. And if the norms they have to follow are based on traits most of us would regard as toxic, it is no wonder that workspaces also become, well, toxic.

This is called the ‘Masculinity Contest’. Basically, the traits you need to survive in modern day corporate workplaces are all masculine (mostly toxic). So, by converting workplaces into adult versions of masculine playgrounds, we invite toxicity in. What are the defining characters or norms of such workplace toxicity?

Showing no weakness

First, you cannot show any weakness. It sounds extreme to say it like this, almost war like, but if you have worked in a corporate set up and take some time to think back on your experiences, you will recognise that this is true. Any sign of doubt, fatigue or even trepidation is taken as weakness in the workplace. You can tell even by looking at the buzzwords so many employers use. We are looking for ‘risk takers’, ‘people who can take initiative’, ‘leaders’, ‘pioneers’, ‘visionaries’. All that hot air, and all they really want you to do is sit behind a desk and edit word documents (or excel sheets) without complaining about the workload. And going to the HR with concerns of overwork? You might as well leave buddy.

Strength and stamina

The second norm is that all workplaces prefer people who can show strength and stamina. Even in white collar workplaces, people prefer, and often promote healthy and good looking jocks as opposed to other less healthier looking people. Now in all fairness, this could be part of a larger problem we have as a society. Something the kids call ‘pretty privilege’. As I’m sure you can guess from the title, it basically means that being attractive comes with its set of privileges, and these privileges often spill onto areas that don’t have anything to do with how you look – for example, people presuming you’re nicer because you’re hot, or recruiters hiring you over your counterparts simply because you happen to be more attractive conventionally.

Work always comes first

The third norm in a toxic work place is the idea that everyone should at all times put work first. You can’t have a life outside of your work and if you do you’re seen as a drag on the team’s resources. You should have no responsibilities that take precedence over your work responsibilities. And even on your off days, most corporate workplaces will expect you to drop whatever you’re doing and get back to work if they need you (which somehow, they always do). I think this is in part because the workplace was designed for a middle aged man of some privilege. The reason why the workplace frowns upon your responsibilities outside of work is because traditionally, their employees had none (read: uninvolved husbands and fathers). You are expected to work as though you have someone at home taking care of the house and children (if you have any) and your only job is to dedicate your life to work, become a company man, and bring in the money. This is simply not true for most of us. No wonder it stresses us out. Doubly so for the women.

Dog eat dog world

And the last norm we uphold in our toxicity as corporate workers is a reinforcement of the idea that it is a ‘dog eats dog’ world. We are encouraged to think of everything as competition under the false belief that this will somehow increase our productivity. It doesn’t. The only thing it does is license bad behaviour in the workplace amongst the mediocre – where you undercut each other and generally act like nasty little beings – and tolerate even worse behaviour amongst the top talent (things like bullying, emotional abuse and even sexual misconduct is overlooked if you are a big earner or part of the inner circle at your workplace).

There have been many studies that show the effects of upholding such norms in the workplace are almost all negative. People report lower levels of productivity, psychological well-being and just general overall happiness in their lives (a major part of which is our work) when they work in conditions highlighted by the norms mentioned above.

The situation, as bad as it is for men, is markedly worse for women. It isn’t called the Masculinity Contest for nothing. Because while such behaviour (as damaging as it is) is encouraged amongst men who want to get ahead professionally, it is simultaneously expected of and disparaged in women. Women are expected to compete in this hyper-masculine space with these hyper-masculine tactics (of never showing weakness, putting work first and acting like the biggest dog around) while never actually displaying masculine traits like aggression or bravado. No, see, displaying such traits will get you labelled as the worst sort of woman and actually reduce your chances of being promoted. This dichotomy deserves an entire blog post of its own, but I haven’t fully gathered my thoughts on this yet, so I am going to leave that for another day.

But the thing about norms is that we have to uphold them ourselves or they lose their meaning. And we do a very good job of doing that.

It is like the story of the naked emperor. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but largely, some tailors told the emperor they were going to design a magical robe for him; one that would only appear to the people that were fit for their office. They designed nothing, and the presented him with nothing. He went about his entire day naked, not wanting to admit he could not see the robes and was therefore unfit for his office. No body else would point it out to him either – because no one wanted to lose their jobs. It is the same thing in corporate office spaces.

Anyone who questions the norms is seen as a weakling and then regarded as not fit enough for the job. There is a masochistic pride in being able to tell stories of how you survived the worst and the most toxic work environment but did not give up. You will reach before your boss, you will pretend to be busy at your desk throughout, acting like you have work even if you don’t, you will waste time in office just to be able to talk about how late you left last night and how overworked you are, and all you’re really doing is perpetuating a toxic norm that doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. You are pretending to see clothes on a naked emperor because you don’t want people to question whether or not you are fit for office. Worse, we disparage people who do not conform to these norms. Everyone might be privately miserable, but because everyone performs the norms publicly there is an illusion that everyone conforms to them and is happy doing so.

The only way in which this toxic corporate culture can change is if we manage to show the leadership that such a change will have a positive impact on the bottom line of the organisation. This reminds me of something I read recently. The pandemic forced everyone to move their work online and taught us to work remotely. Many companies have chosen not to go back to the offline method of work. This is because they asked their employees what they would prefer and the answer was overwhelmingly to stick to working remotely – something that had also had a majorly positive impact on their productivity, and in turn the companies’ profitability. Productivity in the end, comes from happy employees and not from forced pizza parties filled with bad jokes and pissing contests about how close each and every one of us is to a divorce because our spouse hardly ever sees us anymore.

Fashion Course Update: Size matters

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“This week the Department of Agriculture and the WPA in New Jersey set about getting women’s figures taped; they started a WPA project to measure 100,000 women. Later this research will be continued in five other States. Each subject—matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl—will be taped in 59 different places, special recordings made to check the “sitting spread.” The purpose: to create a new, unified system of sizing women’s clothing.” This is an excerpt from an article published in the TIME magazine in 1939 titled, “Women: No Boondoggling.” It heralded in a new era – an era of uniform sizing in the fashion industry. The drive to develop a standard method of sizing individuals was based on the calculation of American manufacturers that they were losing close to $10 million every year due to a lack of standardised sizing. Before this, sized were usually measured according to age (so a size 16 would mean clothes for a 16 year old) and after a certain age, on the basis of bust size. The underlying assumption behind this lax attitude to sizing was that women were generally supposed to know how to sew. So alteration should not be an issue, that is if they weren’t making their clothes from scratch in the first place. Sizes were also not as important as they are to us because people before us simply did not shop as much as we do. We have gone from having 2 fashion seasons a year to as many as 104 seasons.

The Department of Agriculture and the WPA ended up collecting data from 15,000 samples, but given the fact that mostly white women from lower sections of the economy (to earn the participation fees) volunteered for this exercise, and that the people collecting the data had no computers to analyse the data collected, the results were far from conclusive.

The effort to find a universal method of sizing was undertaken again in the 1940s by the Mail-Order Association of America in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards. This time they mostly used sample sizes taken from women serving in the Airforce, creating a sizing system that was once again, fairly arbitrary and hugely non-representative of the population at large (given that women serving in the Airforce were arguably some of the fittest women in the country). They came up with sizes on a scale ranging from 8 to 36, with variations for height – represented by T (Tall), R (Regular) and S (Short) – as well as ‘-‘ and ‘+’ signs to show variations in girth.

This was only the beginning though. Government sizing regulations were more or less ignored by manufactures as the average size of the American woman increased – leading to the development of what we now know as ‘vanity sizing’, so much so that the Department of Commerce withdrew its standard sizing regulations altogether after a point. Already based on an inaccurate and underwhelming system of sizing clothes, the fashion industry – at least in terms of sizing – was now in free fall. To attract customers and to keep women happy, sizes were continuously downplayed. In fact, a few quick online searches will show you how a size 8 in the 1950s is nothing like a size 8 in our day and age. It isn’t so much a bad or a good thing, as it is inconvenient. To give you context, Marylin Monroe was a size 12 in the 1960s. Today she would be better suited to finding clothes in size 6. In the end, it boils down to the fact that the sizing system is flawed and outdated, and I honestly don’t know why we still bother with it. Because, you know, like Stanley Tucci says in Devil wears Prada – “2 is the new 4 and 4 is the new 6.” If you’re a size 6? That’s the new 14. Or not. We don’t actually know what we’re doing anymore.

I have 4 pairs of jeans that fit me perfectly. 2 of these are 26-inch waists, 1 is a 27-incher, 4 are  28-inchers and 1 is even a 24-incher. If I measure my waist with an inch tape – I’m a 27 inch waist. So, um, you see my issue. And this is a fairly common issue. I’ve read up on fashion bloggers talking about how they will try on at least 4 versions of the same clothing item in the same size to find the right fit. So, if sizes on clothes aren’t telling us what size to buy…what is the point?

It was bad enough going through the (unnecessarily) embarrassing ordeal of finding clothes that fit you in a store. Now we have to do it for clothes we buy online? Less embarrassing for sure, but way more frustrating. Did you know almost 40% of clothes bought online are returned due to sizing issues? Now, as frustrating as this is for us, I can’t imagine it is any better for the online retailers. They lose a lot of money covering ‘free return and shipping’ expenses. Let us take a step back for a minute. Yes it is a hassle finding something in your size (only if you’re a size 10 or less mind you, finding clothes beyond that range is a whole different nightmare). But do you ever wonder how the economics of all this works out? The companies we shop from (for the most part) manage to not only stay afloat, but also do quite well in the market. Which means they make up for this cost somewhere along the production line / supply chain. If they aren’t compromising on the speed with which they produce clothes, or the convenience their customers so dearly cherish – the cost must be coming out of some other stage. Like it says in the ‘True Cost’ documentary, it is either made up by upping the human cost or the environmental cost (usually both). I’ve spoken a fair bit about the moral, human and environmental implications of the fashion industry, so I won’t repeat myself here. I promise to stick to the sizing issues, but this is still something to think about.

So where do we go from here?

Is it the ‘one-size fits all’ stores akin to Brandy Melville’s? An approach where you simply put out clothes in different sizes but never label them – allowing all your customers to try out clothes in the same size. The marketing strategy behind this being, presumably, that women feel better when they pick out and fit into the ‘small’ label in clothing stores (regardless of how meaningless that ‘S’ on your clothes has truly become nowadays).

Is it technology? You’ll notice a lot of start-ups promising accurate sizing based on advanced body measurements and 3-D printing. This might very well be the future, but I think there is some time in this yet.

Or is it back to the basics for us? Like Tina Sondergaard’s boutique in Rome. A boutique that makes clothes to measure for each and every individual that walks into the store – allowing for alterations in the design as and when you feel like it – for a hefty price of course.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the first option. Mostly because I can see how that might lead to a lot of bad fitting clothes all round. I think it might come down to this – if the second option becomes economically viable at any point then that might work for the masses, with the elite turning to human labour and treating it like an exotic and coveted commodity – kind of like how they did with technology when it first came out.

Sources:

  1. Eliana Dockterman, ‘Inside the fight to take back the Fitting Room’ TIME Magazine
  2. The Bizarre History of Women’s Clothing – TIME Magazine
  3. A Brief History of Sizing Systems – Medium

We all have a pattern

I am sure we have a lot of patterns. I want to talk about the one all of us have in common. The pattern we all follow, and that eventually makes us feel like we are stuck, that we won’t ever be able to do anything new or anything worthwhile.

I don’t usually start my day with such depressing thoughts, but I stumbled upon an article while I was drinking my morning coffee. Oh, side note, morning coffee is a whole thing with me now. When I was working I would drink coffee only for sustenance. To keep myself awake. I would drink anything that had coffee in it – and honestly, I have had some pretty unappetising variations of the beverage as a result of this attitude. But now, I really take an interest in my coffee. I try to look up the different brands of coffee. I have even gone to the extent of exploring buying coffee beans and making the entire drink from scratch. I look up recipes for the kinds of coffee I can have – sometimes moving by geography (I’ll tell you about these recipes someday). This newfound attitude about coffee has made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. I guess this is what people mean when they say we need to romanticise the mundane. Like should look like a studio Ghibli film. But back to the topic at hand.

The article said there is a reason – a pattern all of us follow – that makes most of us fail at whatever we start. There are stages to this process of failing.

The first stage is the beginning. Everything looks good at the beginning, and who doesn’t get excited to start something new? Like the excitement I felt when I started researching options for my masters education. Every programme looked better than the last one. I would get excited just looking at pictures of students smiling in sunny avenues (no doubt fake pictures) and imagining all the fun I will have once I get into this school, or get into that programme.

The second stage is when you start to see progress. Checked this box too. Say, every time I start a painting, my favourite part is over-lining the pencil sketch with a black marker / black paint. It makes the painting come alive, while at the same time enough of it remains unfinished that you can imagine how pretty it will look once it has been finished (it rarely ever looks that good once it is genuinely completed). Progress excites me, because now I can imagine how the end result might look without actually having put in the effort.

Progress makes us happy, and this leads to the third stage of becoming cocky. If you start from zero everything is going to be an achievement. It is much harder to stay on the course and stay consistent. This is where the real hard work starts. I know they all say that starting is half the job done, but I disagree with that. I think starting is about 30% of the job and the rest is to keep the momentum going. This is when things start to slow down, and stuff gets boring. I think this is also where a lot of people give up. I know I certainly do – for a lot of the projects I start. If you saw how many unfinished paintings sit in my studio, you’d know. There is something thankless about this stage of progress, and I think it takes a lot of internal conviction to keep going. This is where we lost motivation, and that eventually leads to the end of that project.

The thing then to do is to figure out the why of any project you may pick up. Apparently the worst reasons for doing anything are fame and money. We all know this internally, yes, but it does get hard to stay focused on other things. Like with this blog. The reason I started this blog was because I was lonely and I had a lot of things to talk about but I didn’t want to disturb my friends with it. I love to consume media – but I did not want to be a passive consumer anymore; I wanted to think about the things I was consuming and talk about them constructively. Lastly, I wanted to become more comfortable with putting myself out there, and improve my writing style in the process, if possible. I think that is possibly why this project has gone on longer than most of my other projects. So, maybe that is good advice.

I haven’t summarised the whole article, but here is the original one in case you are interested.

Fashion Course Update: Part II

As part of an online course I’m taking, I need to do some research into how sizing works in the fashion industry. As in, how they decide to size our clothes. The prompt to the assignment says I must go into my closet and pull out a clothing item from some of my favourite brands. It needs to be the same item though – like a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, a blazer…you get the idea. And because I am currently going through a hate-phase for all items denim, I decided to focus on my jeans. When I have a couple of these (which I do) I need to write down the sizes of all items, and then try them on to decide on the best fit. Once I’ve landed on something that fits me perfectly (or I fit I like best) I have to take a picture of it and upload it online. I also need to submit a write-up on what my thoughts on the sizing industry are. Sounds absurd, I know. Who could possibly have ‘thoughts’ on sizing? I do, as it turns out. As I was researching for the article, it struck me that even though the topic sounds inane (not to the clothing manufacturers), I have actually spent a lot of my time and mental energy on this. Sizing has, to use a popular phrase I see all over Instagram nowadays, ‘lived rent free in my head’ for ages now.

Who hasn’t walked into a store and thought they knew their size only to be proven wrong? If this has happened to you, don’t worry. It isn’t you; it is them. The sizes aren’t uniform. A ‘small’ in Mango does not mean you will fit into a ‘small’ at Zara. I simultaneously own jeans with a waist size of 24 inches, 26 inches and 28 inches. This is for jeans I have picked up from the women’s section in clothing stores. If I try on a pair owned by my brother (which I did as part of this exercise) my size ranges from anywhere between 26 to 32. And then there is the whole concept of ‘vanity sizing’.

I first found out about the term ‘vanity sizing’ when I was fourteen. I remember it was in the context of a huge debate surrounding the health implications of being size 0 – because a super famous actress had just attained it and was going around town advertising (what sounded like) the extreme diet and workout regime she had to adopt to get down to that size. Being the impressionable (and jobless) youth I was, I started looking into what I needed to do to get that size. I think one of the main requirements of being a size 0 are having a 24-inch waist. This was something I had as a skinny fourteen-year-old with zero effort on my part. Simply because my body was still a child’s body and hadn’t stopped growing. This, however, did not stop me from being immensely proud of this non-achievement and talking about it with my girlfriends at school whenever I had the chance. Not a very healthy thing to do, I know. But everyone was talking about it at the time, and I just so happened to be on the ‘right’ side of the tracks, so I made the most of it.

Now that I have been asked to think about it critically – to look into the history of sizing, to find out why men and women have different sizing practices, to investigate how the concept of vanity sizing came into being – it makes sense to spend so much time on this topic. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like anything new has taken up residence in my head. I have always spent time thinking about this. I think most people do – especially women. I haven’t had too many discussions with the men in my life to find out if this is a major thing in their lives too. But I have noticed something. Whenever we talk about shopping, women are always more ready with their measurements than men are. At least in the circles I have been a part of. Most men in my life have a vague idea of whether or not they fit into a medium, and maybe remember their waist size from the last time they had to measure it. On the other hand, a lot of women I know (myself included) are always extremely acutely aware of their sizes – across brands too.

I measure my sizes obsessively. I have fit into the same sized jeans for the last 7 years. Even so, I get upset if I can’t fit into clothes I bought as a teenager. Isn’t that weird? There is apparently a psychological reason (apart from the obvious ones) why a lot of women are obsessed with their sizes. I think it has something to do with the way clothes are advertised. It makes for larger profits I imagine. I have a lot to say on this and I need some time to get my thoughts in order. Once I do, I hope it turns out a little better than this semi-rant.

Trying to sleep

Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

I’ve always had great sleep hygiene. Growing up, and in fact, till about a couple of months ago, I could fall asleep within seconds. Once asleep, I could sleep uninterrupted for hours at a stretch. Even when I worked a corporate job and hardly had time for anything apart from my work, I slept pretty well. Whenever I had the chance, that is.

In the last couple of months however, my sleep hygiene has gone down the drain. I have trouble falling asleep. I stay up till 2-3 am almost every night. Once I do fall asleep, I usually experience sleep paralysis. This is a pretty common form of sleep disorder, and I think about 1 in 10 people experience it at some point in their lives. Be that as it may, for anyone who has experienced it, you know how scary it can be. Before I found out what sleep paralysis was, I genuinely used to think I’m going to die every time I experienced it. It has an interesting history too. Back in the day, people would associate it with demonic possession – and the fact that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by auditory and/or visual hallucinations didn’t help. And because I’ve started going to bed at progressively later hours, and have terrible interruptions in the middle, the overall low-quality of my sleep means I have started waking up later than usual too.

Now, I’m not sure why this shift has taken place, but I also know there are some things I could be doing (and should be doing) to improve the quality of my sleep. If you want better sleep, you should, ideally, not drink any sort of stimulant (coffee or tea) after 5 pm (earlier if your bedtime is earlier than 10 pm). Your phone should not be the last thing you look at every night. In fact, you should keep away from and stop using all electronics at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. Someone even suggested that I keep no clocks / watches in the room I intend to sleep in if I want a good night’s rest.

And if I’m being honest, I have only been (barely) able to cut out the second step. I try not to look at any electronic devices before falling asleep. But that hasn’t helped too much. So, recently, I have started listening to podcasts before I fall asleep. I know this has been around for some time now, and a lot of people have been doing this to fall asleep. But since I’m new to the sleepless brigade, I’m new to this too.

A couple of nights ago, while trying to fall asleep, I tuned into Tom Bilyeu’s chat with Mel Robbins. He has a channel where he discusses ‘impact theory’. I don’t know if this is a scientific term of or if this is just something he calls his own channel. But I love the guy. He is a great interviewer and unlike a lot of people out there who invite guests onto their shows, this guy actually likes hearing his guests speak. I find it irritating when people bring experts on to their shows but keep butting in when their guests are talking just to seem relevant (or make it seem like they too have a valuable opinion on every subject). Tom never does that. Admittedly, his interviews are slightly long as a result of this, but all the more enjoyable for it. I hadn’t really heard of Mel Robbins before last night, but the show was an hour long and that is usually as long as it takes me to doze off to something, so I tuned in. Here is what I liked about the things she said.

Motivation is a farce

Right at the beginning of the interview, Robbins declares that she hates being called a ‘motivational speaker’ because she thinks motivation is a farce. It isn’t real, and the idea that we have to be motivated to do something is often what stops us from going after the things we want. As humans, we are conditioned to take the path of least resistance. It makes no evolutionary sense for us to put ourselves in any sort of discomfort. And often, the things we want in life – a good career, good relationships, impacting out community in positive ways – is at the other side of discomfort. So, to tell yourself that you’ll go after something if you’re ‘motivated’ enough is, according to Robbins, a bad self-narrative. You’re not going to be motivated to do a lot of the things that you need to do, in order to have a fulfilling life. The thing to aim for then, is consistency. If you have an end goal in mind, you should forget about motivation. Regardless of whether or not you feel motivated to do something, just show up.

Personally, I sort of agree with this approach. For years I wanted to write, and to start a blog, but I never got around to do it because I kept waiting for the motivation to strike me. If never did. So, I just started. I have a personal goal of blogging every day and on most days, I don’t feel like doing it (I have tons of ideas on what to write, but I always get lazy when it comes to putting in effort). But I’ve just stopped thinking about it. I treat it as a non-negotiable. Doesn’t matter if I feel like it, I just get out here.

You are a single decision away, always

Which brings us to the next thing she said that stuck with me. I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase ‘you’re one decision away from the life you want’. I wasn’t a fan of this brand of motivational quotes till last night. To me, it seemed like the kind of thing people just say. It didn’t really mean anything if I’m being honest. But, as it turns out, it doesn’t mean what I think it meant. According to Robbins, every day you take a bunch of decisions on how to live your life. We aren’t talking about huge decisions – should I quit my job, should I marry this person, should I get out of this relationship – no. What she means is the tiny decisions we take every day when deciding the basics of life. For example, you could choose to wake up on time, or sleep in. Then you might choose to grab breakfast or skip it. If you feel disrespected in a conversation, you might choose to let it slide just the once. Except it doesn’t really stop there. Once you start taking decisions in a certain way, your brain apparently gets used to it. And if it is the path of least resistance (which it usually is) then it becomes harder to rewire yourself to take better decisions.

Try the 5-second rule

Having said that, it isn’t impossible to rewire yourself. You can do it. And the method Robbins suggests is the 5-second rule. Apparently, whenever your brain is making a decision, and you don’t really want to continue to make that decision, you can slow your brain down and rewire it by counting down from 5 to 0. Say you want to wake up every day at 7 am. But every time your alarm goes off you hit snooze. Now, your brain has more or less conditioned your body not to wake up when the alarm goes off. If you want to get out of this, whenever your alarm goes off, you can undercut your own brain by taking a breath and counting down from 5 before you hit snooze. Robbins on the show said it’s a proven psychological technique that is widely used. Like when we were kids in school, and someone wanted a whole bunch of us to quiet down, they would start counting down. You give your brain something to do when it is about to make a decision you don’t want it to make, and you can successfully trick yourself.

The day after listening to this podcast, I managed to wake up with the alarm. But that was just the one day. I hope, that in the future, I can incorporate these things into my life successfully and consistently.

Success is a tail-end event

I just finished reading the book ‘The Psychology of Money’ last night. I don’t usually pick up books on investment or financial planning – mostly because I don’t understand a lot of the things that are being said, and even when I do, it isn’t something I naturally enjoy reading. But this book came highly recommended to me by people I admire. So, I decided to give it a shot.

Unlike other books on investment planning and general financial advice, I actually really enjoyed this book. I love how Housel (the author) dumbed everything down and made it interesting with anecdotes and stories. I recommend everyone check out this book if they have the time. It is filled with a lot of good advice.

More than anything I liked the chapter in which the author talks about how we only acknowledge the few specific instances of phenomenal success without looking at all the other times a person may have failed. He states that whenever we talk about successful people – what we see on the surface is rarely the whole story. Most successful people fail a lot more than they succeed. We just don’t see the times they fail. Or even when we do see it, we don’t apply it to our own lives. Often, we are our own harshest critics.

He gives the example of Warren Buffet, arguably the most successful investor of all time. What we see is a multi-billionaire and master investor. What we don’t see is that Buffet’s portfolio is majorly made up of stock that does not perform that well. It just has a few marquee stock options that account for most of his success. What we also fail to acknowledge most of the times, is that he made almost all of his fortune after he turned retirement age, even though he has been investing since he was 10. What we see as a success and measure ourselves again, is a tail-end event. He invested thousands, if not millions of times, failed most of the times, and succeeded a few times. The success makes up for the wrong decisions in hindsight – but you have to understand, at the time of making them, they still were incorrect decisions ! No one is successful all the time. You make a ton of bad decisions, and then you eventually make a few good ones that offset the bad. The important thing is to keep at it.

I know it is hard to reconcile this with the image of successful people and celebrities we see out there. For example, I recently started my YouTube channel, and I’ve been binging on videos by other content creators talking about how they got to where they did, how to grow on YouTube and what not. One of the biggest YouTubers, and perhaps one of my favourites – Pewdiepie – has the nicest video on this topic. He doesn’t bother getting into how consistently you need to post, or how you can beat the algorithm etc. No, none of that. Instead, he talks about his own journey and the things he has learnt on this journey. He ends the video with saying you should get into this if you enjoy making videos. That ways, if you blow up, it will be organic and people will like you because you have fun with what you do. On the other hand, if you never make it, you’ll at least have had fun ! He is one of the few individual creators who has consistently uploaded every single day for the past couple of years. I think he has been making videos for 10 years now. There is something to be said about this. It ties in with the idea of success being a tail-end event, just as Housel mentions. Yes, these people have become successful. But they kept at it, and they were consistent with it for far longer than they have been successful. I often see images of icebergs online as metaphors for success. The part we see above sea level is the success someone has already received. What we don’t see, and what is often the most important part, is all the effort they put in to get there – all their failed attempts, all their bad decisions and all their hard work.

With life, as with investing, you’re going to have to keep at it. That is all there is to it. Successful people, according to Housel, are people who often have outrageous ideas, and always act on all of them.