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.

Drinking habits

Sometime in the beginning of this year I thought, perhaps for the first time, that I maybe had an issue with alcohol. That I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had originally enjoyed it. And then I wrote about how I had decided to quit it. I was quite good at that, or at least I thought I was. I stuck to not drinking alcohol at all for a couple of months. I even attended a few parties and resisted the temptation to join in on all the fun. Then, for some reason, I convinced myself that I could let it go whenever I wanted to, and so I really did not have anything else to prove to myself. I had done what I needed to do to show myself I was in control and I could maybe go back to doing the things I ‘enjoyed’. Ever since I have gotten back to drinking I have been thinking about a relationship with alcohol and how it has changed over the years.

Why did I start to drink? You know I honestly don’t know. It wasn’t peer pressure that got me started onto it. I was just one of those kids and I had it set in my mind that I was going to start drinking as soon as I could. That it would add something that had hitherto been missing from my life. I had my first night of drinking when I was sixteen. I was eighteen when I first blacked out. For many years after that, I thought this was normal. I thought it was okay to blackout and that if you didn’t, you weren’t really enjoying yourself as much as you’re supposed to. That the night could have been a lot ‘better’. I subscribed to ridiculous ideas of how I don’t drink to have fun, I would instead drink to get drunk. Like it is some serious milestone I need to achieve every time I pick a glass up. And if you ask me today why that was the case, what was achieved through all this, I really would not have an answer for you. That is just the way I thought. For me, there was no other way I was going to be involved with alcohol. I had to, absolutely had to, be one of those kids that got into it quickly and went in deep. And so I did.

Why did I keep up with it? This I do have a bit more clarity on. A couple of years into drinking – and I mean drinking almost every weekend – I realized blackouts were not the norm. That there were people out there who enjoyed alcohol without forgetting huge chunks of the previous night. At first, I scoffed at these people. Who were they? Why were they so boring? Did they not know that you’re young only once, and you can do all of this responsible drinking once you enter the middle ages? I was arrogant in all the wrong ways. But the thing is, as much as I maintained this on the outside, there was a growing disconnect between drinking and enjoyment in my life. I didn’t recognize it at the time. Every night of blacking out was followed up by an anxiety riddled morning. I experienced all the emotional symptoms of a hangover without any of the physical ones. I had intense self-loathing. I wanted to ask people what happened the night before, but at the same time, I didn’t want them to tell me something that would make me dislike myself. So, I never asked. I figured that as long as no one came up to me and complained about my behavior it must have been okay, and as long as I had no idea what I had done the night before, I could in some way distance myself from it. Which was, as you can guess, absolutely not the case. I still felt like crap every single time I went out drinking. And yet, I would pick it up again whenever I went out.

Was there a turning point? Absolutely. I just didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time. I think it happened around 7 years into my drinking. I started getting raging hangovers. No one really talks about how suddenly your body ages. You’re fine till one night of drinking (as fine as you can be), and then the next time you go out drinking, you’re hit by a sixteen-wheeler of a headache, nausea, cramps, body aches and shivering out of nowhere. I honestly didn’t even realize what was happening to me the first time I got a hangover. I thought I was genuinely sick. I panicked and told my flat mate at the time about it, who informed me that I was being silly, and it was just a hangover. Just a hangover? Is this what it felt like then? Wow. I was shocked, and also perversely impressed with myself. I had finally crossed over into the mythical land of adulthood (at least in this one aspect) and I could now claim camaraderie with all who were constantly (yet ever so stylishly) complaining of hangovers (think: movie characters). That lasted for about a minute, before I started loathing my hangovers. I had been turning away from drinking (at least the idea of it) for some time now, and having hangovers just gave me that additional push I needed. And so, I thought I’ll give it up. How card could it be.

And in the end, how hard was it? I haven’t managed to give it up yet. But I did leave it for a couple of months this year. The hardest part about trying to give up alcohol – this is only if you’re like me and drink with friends and not alone, because luckily that was a habit I never picked up – was realizing what a big part of your personality alcohol becomes. I have friends I started disliking spending time with because it seemed to me that the only thing we had connecting us was alcohol. I stopped wanting to go to parties or hanging out with even close friends, because for some reason people don’t take you seriously when you try and tell them you’re trying to quit drinking. They all seem to take it as a personal attack for some reason. As though their fun will become any less legitimate if you’re not as drunk as them. And even when they (finally!) leave you alone, everyone seems to view you suspiciously, as though one is simply not supposed to enjoy oneself sober after a certain age.

How did I get back to this place? I quit cold turkey for a couple of months because of a particularly nasty blackout and hangover. I felt uneasy just thinking about drinking in large settings after that night. But after a couple of months of sobriety I had the chance to re-explore my relationship with alcohol. I went out drinking with an old set of family friends and for the first time in forever, I drank in moderation and thoroughly enjoyed my night out. The entire vibe of the evening and everyone present at the gathering was so….immaculate. No one was trying to get you to drink more than you wanted (or needed) to. Here was a set of people who weren’t using alcohol to overcome some form self-perceived defect in their social skills. Nope. They were entirely comfortable in their respective skins, and around the people they had chosen to get drunk with. The circle was, for lack of a better phrase, airtight. After getting drunk with this set, I thought maybe it was possible to become a better drinker (I don’t know if this is the right phrase). For the first time since I had started drinking, I felt like I didn’t have to drink for the benefit of other peoples’ entertainment, or to show people I could still pull impossible feats of alcohol absorption like I did in my younger years.

I have since tried it out a couple of other times. And I found that I could, when I wanted to, drink in a way that let me enjoy the night and wake up the next day feeling quite alright. All I needed was a bit of control and a re-assessment of my drinking circle.

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.

My new hobby: Tarot Readings

Have you ever seen a tarot reading on YouTube? I started watching them recently. I have a friend who watches this religiously and she recommended I check it out. I used to be very interested in all things horoscope till I was about 17 years old. I even own a copy of Linda Goodman’s Love Signs. And like every other person I know, I read every single thing relating to my sun sign word for word and skipped over all other signs. I was amazed at the accuracy of some of the things she said in her book. That is, till I checked out what she had written about another sun sign (I think I had a crush at the time and I wanted to check out his sign). I quickly figured out that she had written more or less the same things for all of us.

Things like all of us are passionate (about something I am sure), all of us have a temper, all of us have the capacity for great love and so on. There are some distinguishing traits for particular signs, but even then it is a generalized distinction if that makes sense. For example, all Capricorns are supposed to be very hard-working and ambitious. But, if by some small chance, you aren’t any of these things despite being a Capricorn, that is also okay. It isn’t an exact science after all. This realization made me go off the whole horoscopes and astrology bent of mind.

Until recently. When I started listening to Tarot readings on YouTube. For those of you who have never seen one, I’m going to recommend Minnow and the 303 High Priestess channel. Yeah, I know, it sounds corny. But these people have a great energy and I think their readings generally resonate with a lot of the people (at least, from what I can tell from the comments section). Getting back into this long lost interest of mine made me realize a few things I want to share.

Don’t take it too seriously

I have seen this happen a lot. Whenever people get interested in astrology (or related subjects) they tend to take it very literally. No hate on people who do, and I am sure there are many things about this entire field I don’t understand, but if you’re a casual viewer like me, then I would say you should take it a little lightly. I treat it not as something that is set in stone but as happy messages that put me in the right frame of mind. For example, if your reading says you need to watch out for your health there are two ways of going about this. Either you let it stress you out and constantly worry about your health (in which case, it might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy) or you take that as good advice and try to eat healthier or avoid certain unhelpful situations. Glass being either half empty or half full and all that.

Listen to good things

Most of the Tarot readers online will always start with a similar message. They will always tell you that what they are doing is a generalized reading and that you should pay attention to it only if it resonates with you. Even though it is rare to have the whole reading resonate with you, there will always be bits in it that you think could apply to your life. The thing I like about these readings is that they are always saying positive things. And even when they talk about negative things, they will balance it out in one way or another. So, essentially, it is like listening to a bunch of feel good messages with my morning coffee and I think that is what makes the whole experience so enjoyable for me. It doesn’t matter if it applies to me or not. It feels nice to have people tell you good things.

Is this a manifestation trick maybe?

I think how you talk to yourself and the things you tell yourself make a lot of difference. You can choose to tell yourself bad things, or surround yourself with positive messages. If you have the time, why not listen to someone talk about great things that can happen to you? You never know what your subconscious brain will retain, and the impact it could have on your life. I love it when the Tarot lady / man tells me there is going to be a lot of abundance flowing into my life (or some such similarly positive message). It might not come true, but it is definitely better than listening to someone say the opposite.

Losing friends

I am sure everyone has this, but there are a lot of times in my life, when I think I am the only one making any effort in my friendships. I seem to be the only one constantly reaching out, asking to meet up, or asking the other person how their day has been. While this description feels tilted in my favour (and rightly so, since I am very unlikely to cast myself as the villain in my own story), I do acknowledge that it might sometimes also be the other way round. Maybe there are people in my life – friends – who feel like I’m the unresponsive one. Like I am the one who never wants to reply to texts on time or to hang out with them. While I certainly know the first instance to be true, I am self-aware enough to admit that the second one might not be so far from reality either.

So why have I been losing friends? Why does anyone lose friends?

Apparently, there is an age beyond which most of us will start to lose friends. That age is 25. Quite accurate I think – since I’m 26 right now. Till you’re about a quarter of a century old, you have the energy and the willingness to keep expanding your circle and to cultivate whatever circle you have. But more often than not, once that mark has been reached, your enthusiasm starts to wane. You inevitably start letting go of people. And that isn’t a bad thing. You start to let go of people because you are (usually) no longer looking for transient or frivolous connections. Now is the time to build a life you want, and people who do not contribute to that in a significant way will inevitably be left behind. That is just the way it is.

And I’m not talking about emotionally draining or toxic friendships. Those you should let go of regardless of the stage you are at in life. I am talking about good, decent friendships that one may have enjoyed at some point in their life. I am talking about really good school friends or college friends.

Another reason a lot of people have been writing about nowadays is the pandemic. Because the pandemic clarified a lot of our priorities, naturally, the only people we spoke to during this time were either people we deeply cared about (thereby removing an entire layer of superficial friendships) or people that we found convenient to talk to (thereby removing some long distance friendships too). The pandemic led to the formation of something called ‘pandemic pods‘ in terms of relationships. It reduced the number and kind of people we had historically interacted with to either people who were very important to us or people who were following the same standards of care and hygiene as us.

But as guilty as I feel for not reaching out to people more often, or as mad as I am about people who don’t bother to reach out to me, there is nothing unnatural about losing friendships as we grow older (and hopefully wiser). It could be for a number of reasons. Reasons I have mentioned above, or even some of those toxic reasons I have deliberately left out (don’t we all just have a couple of friends or people we know that are such an emotional drain on us?). Instead I really like to think of it in terms of this new concept I learnt – something called “friendscapes“.

As you can probably tell by the name, it means cultivating landscapes of different kinds of friendships and acquaintances that serve different purposes in our lives. Put simply, “your friendscape can change during certain, specific situations during life – going away to university or a summer camp, or being in a certain job – and you often begin curating new friends to fit that current life situation. Not everyone can fit into your current friendscape.” I like this idea a lot because this is exactly how I feel about a lot of people that have either come into or gone out of my life. There are friends I have lost touch with because I became busier than them, and friends I have gained instead because we work the same kind of hectic jobs; friends I have lost touch with because they are in long-term committed relationships, and others I have gained instead because we are a bunch of singles looking to do fun group based activities around town.

So, yeah, while it is tempting to think of lost friendships in terms of blame and bitterness, I think it is a lot more helpful to just think of these lost connections as a fact of life and move on. Makes for a more peaceful existence. And I’m nothing if not obsessed with that.

Snake oil salesmen

Link

There was once a man called Clark Stanley. He travelled the length and breadth of the United States of America to sell his product. The product was oil made from rattle snakes. At least, this is what he claimed. Large crowds would flock to this man’s presentations, usually given at local medical showings. He claimed that his product, based on the Chinese water snake oil (words that sound exactly as shady as they are), could cure all sorts of ailments known to man. You name it, and it can be cured. All by using this, um, snake oil.

Sometimes I wonder – will future generations look back at us and marvel at all the dumb shit we fell for? Will they laugh when they discuss our almost unshakable faith in the many healing qualities of scented candles? Or will they be shocked at how ‘Goop’ was a real company selling the products it sells to actual people (I’m still shocked, and I belong to this generation). But anyway, back to our snake man Stanley.

He carried on quite a successful business selling his snake oil to anyone and everyone. After some time, someone had the bright idea to examine the claim. They found out that not only does the snake oil not cure any illnesses (shocker I know), it also isn’t snake oil. Yup, it was just regular oil. I mean, I’m honestly not even mad at the man. If he could pull this off, then good for him. As far as I’m concerned, he earned that money, for entertainment value if not medicinal value.

Since then, the term ‘snake oil salesman’ has been used in pop culture to refer to, well, frauds. These are the people who go around advertising their ‘cures’ to the weak. There are many kind of frauds out there to be sure. But the ones who use this method of operation, the ones who prey on people who are at their most vulnerable to sell them basically nothing, are the ones deserving of this title.

A great place to find such snake oil salesmen (let us call them SOS) is the internet. You can get them for almost anything you want, in almost any field you might ever be interested in. You can find these people peddling their goods in the areas of learning how to start a business, or learning how to blog, or learning how to grow on YouTube, or learning how to get rid of acne. But I believe that the most vicious ones are to be found in the niche of ‘How to get Rich Quick’.

The thing all of these Get Rich Quick scheme people have in common is that they sell a particular kind of fantasy. One where (1) you can become immensely wealthy; (2) you can become immensely wealthy in a short period of time; and (3) it does not matter who you are (“anyone with a lick of sense can do it” as they like to say). They all have a system for it. And the only way you can do it is if you follow this system, and you follow it religiously.

I see so many of these millionaires all over YouTube. The gurus that drive fancy cars, big houses, have girls all around them (which by the way, I take exception to, because they always show girls as some sort of commodity that ups your social value in the same way cars and houses do) and seem to have done all of this seemingly effortlessly.

I’ve been down the rabbit hole with these gurus. Many of them, many times. And, I think you can already tell what my opinion on this is, but let me spell it out for you anyway.

First of all, anyone can fall for this trash. It does not matter how smart or well-educated you are. The trick with these SOS is that they catch you at a vulnerable time in your life. The first time I started following one of them was when I had recently quit my job. These were the weeks in which I went through life with a smug sense of superiority – thinking I had cracked the matrix. I was out of my 9-5 corporate job and I was going to do what I loved to do and automatically become a quite rich while doing it. Seems pretty straight forward does it not. I was all set to be the dream. And what I needed was someone to guide me and help me navigate the world of personal finance. You know, one of those people that teach you ‘how to become a millionaire doing what you love’, or ‘how to generate 6 streams of passive income’, or ‘how to make money work for you’. You get the idea. It was scary to be out in the world alone without a monthly salary keeping my ego afloat, and so I turned to these SOS. As quickly as I fell into this, I started to realise something. Which brings me to my second point.

They have nothing new to offer. One could argue they have nothing to offer at all. But I don’t think that is true. If you listen to them with the intention of having some positive thoughts screamed at you by some middle aged man who clearly pumps himself full of steroids to avoid dealing with his emotions, then yes. That need gets fulfilled. What they don’t offer you is any value beyond this. They always say the same things, and they always say things you already know. I heard at least 6 different men tell me that to be rich I have to generate multiple streams of income. Ok, yes, agreed. But I already knew that. I didn’t find out anything new. And I certainly did not find out how to make money quickly did I? Generating multiple streams of income is good advice, but it takes years of insane hard work and some very smart investing to get to this point.

And these are the nicer SOS I’m talking about. Don’t even get me started on the people who tell you to sign up for ‘exclusive’ courses to learn all of their ‘tricks’. The only thing exclusive about that course is the money that exclusively flows out of your pocket.

I followed a few of these gurus for some time, and then I got tired of having the same thing screamed at me. Luckily, I didn’t end up spending too much time on it. I mean, I might have signed up for a few online ‘take quizzes and make money’ schemes but I didn’t do much more than that. But from what I know, it can get a lot worse.

Alright, I think I am done with my rant for today. I’m going to go back and try and finish packing for my trip. I will talk to all of you tomorrow.

Indecision

I have been postponing my post graduate education for some a couple of years now. I graduated in 2019. While I was still in law school I had this idea that I should complete my postgraduate studies as soon as I am done with my schooling. But I didn’t end up applying for any courses because the semester I had to apply in – I opted to go for an exchange programme instead. Looking back, I think that was a good decision.

So, I thought I’ll work for a couple of years, and then when I have some practical experience along with a clearer idea of what I want to do, I’ll re-enter university.

I’m glad I did that because a couple of months into my profession and I knew, sure as anything, that it was not for me. This decision wasn’t born of any dissatisfaction I had with the workplace or any other such external factors. In fact, I did a lot of soul searching before coming to this conclusion. It isn’t easy to look back at 5 years of schooling and then 1 year of work and write it off as ‘sunk cost’. A lot of career counsellors talk about this concept a fair bit. We are afraid to make such life altering decisions even when we know it will be good for us because we are wary of losing the sunk cost. But that is just what it is. It’s already gone. That is what the word ‘sunk’ means right. You can’t get back the 6 years you’ve spent on this one thing now, but you can make sure that the 6 years doesn’t become 10 years. Now, I’m not mathematical genius, but even I can tell 10 is worse than 6. Another work-guru told me to assess my work in terms of factors that are ‘situational’ and ‘fundamental’ to decide if I really want to leave my line of work or not.

Situational factors are things external to your actual work. Things like the manager you have, the work environment, whether people in your office gossip about you and what not. These are not things which are inherent to the work you do.

Fundamental factors are things inherent to what you’re doing. For example if you’re a lawyer, something fundamental to your work would be reviewing contracts, drafting, researching etc. If you dislike these things, then, well, it might be smart to look up another line of employment.

After deliberating a lot, I realised that the things I loved about my job were all situational. Things like my boss, my colleagues, the office space itself and what not. What I didn’t like about my job was the actual work I had to do. I found it boring to say the least. So, I decided to quit it to try some other things out.

You know something no one talks about when you decide to quit? How much harder it is to quit when you are good at something. Because then, even if you’re not enjoying yourself or you’re convinced you have some other purpose in life, you’ll always doubt your aptitude to mean something more than it does. Maybe I find it so easy because I’m good at this. And because I am good at this, I must be meant for this. Of all the things that held me back, this was possibly the biggest factor.

When I was quitting, I convinced myself I would apply for my post-graduate studies so that my time off wasn’t “wasted”. The application deadlines for most of the programmes I want to go for are towards the end of December / early January. And I haven’t started anything. I was so sure I was going to apply for it this year. And yet, here I am, watching endless videos on how to make the perfect homemade pasta sauce. If I had to think about it, I think I can come up with a few reasons why I don’t want to make the effort just yet.

The cost

My god, does it cost. Especially the degree I want. I want to go to business school, and they’re really not kidding when they say this is one of the most expensive courses in the world. I understand the rationale behind why it is so expensive to get this degree, especially from a school of some repute. There is this idea that once you graduate you’re going to work an incredibly high paying job and you’ll make the money back. I guess they’re right about that. Be that as it may, it is still a huge commitment to make. And I know we are supposed to view it as “investing” in ourselves and our futures, but it is scary to me. I mean, I know myself. Would I really want to spend that kind of money on me? I don’t know. I want the degree, but I also want myself to be completely sure before committing to it.

Time constraints

I resent the idea that certain things in your life have to happen by a certain time. You’ve got to finish university by such and such age, or you should have decided on a job and career path by such and such age, or you should be done with all your studying and be ready to start a family by such age. I don’t know who came up with this time table and why all of us are so hell bent on following it. I find myself panicking about this sometimes. Then I have to actively stop myself from rushing into making an application for whichever college I land on first. I want to take my time with it, but somehow this feels like a radical idea at times.

Value addition

Most of the things I want to learn, I can learn without ever having to leave my room. I’ve heard way too many people questioning the value of a traditional education to go into it with the kind of blind faith I had earlier. I mean, I am pretty much a traditionalist still. And I think there are some things – like meeting new people, shifting to a new city etc. – which online and informal education can’t provide. But the more I look into it, the more I find myself questioning whether I should make the leap.

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.

Alone time

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I think I have written about how I don’t enjoy talking to a lot of people anymore. This might not seem like a big deal to many people. Especially the quieter ones. Like my sister for example. She rarely talks to other people. You really have to draw her out into having a conversation and even when you manage to do that you get the distinct sense that she is participating only to please you. For me though, it has been a massive change.

I can barely stand to make conversation with most people nowadays. And it isn’t because I don’t like them. Most of these people are close friends, they are people I genuinely adore. But somehow, I just don’t have any interest in the things they have to say. Every single time I get pulled into a conversation I have to force myself to go through the motions – it really isn’t an enjoyable experience for me anymore.

Alone time has become precious currency for me.

Once I started enjoying the time I spent alone, away from people and their incessant problems (which I’m sure mean a lot to them but very little to me, as selfish as that sounds), and really started enjoying my own company, I was more or less spoilt for others. There are not many spaces of my existence left in which I want to let people in. I don’t mind enjoying them from a distance or enjoying the idea of them.

And the thing is – I’m not depressed. I don’t mean any of this in a sad girl-done with life way. I feel so happy to be left alone. For the first time in months, I feel emotionally stable. And it turns out, I never even get bored. I make great conversation in my head. I have tons of interests in common with myself. And I never disagree with my own movie choice, so that is sorted too.

I remember a couple of years ago – when I was just starting out on being alone, truly alone, for the first time – one of my closest friends told me he is scared of spending too much time alone, because what if he starts to enjoy it too much and then never wants to make an effort to spend time with anyone else ever again? I see what he meant now. I really can’t imagine anyone’s company being more enjoyable than my own. I hope someone out there can prove me wrong, but it doesn’t seem likely to occur in the near future. I read somewhere that the term ‘alone’ is used differently to show different states of being. You say loneliness when being alone is a negative feeling for you and solitude when it is positive. It definitely is positive for me.

And also when you’re alone and doing things you enjoy you stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. You stop caring who hasn’t invited you to which event, you stop caring about the things people are getting upto – new jobs, new partners, new stresses – none of these things matter. At the risk of sounding preachy, I genuinely think I have reached some inner well of peacefulness. It may be temporary, sure, but so be it.

Romanticise your life

I’ve been in a rut for the last two days. I have been irritated with my friends. I haven’t touched my paintings. I haven’t done much work. I’ve just stayed in bed the whole time. My entire existence in these last couple of days could be summed up by the introduction to Ibrahim Kamit’s video on why social media is bad – you know the one where he wakes up late, stares at his phone til its lunch time, barely gets out of bed for food, and then stares at his phone till it is time to sleep.

We all know social media is bad in some ways. We have heard so many people say this – explain why it is bad, and how its affecting our health (mental and physical) and what not – that now, to say these words, feels very clichéd.

I think it is bad too (shocker). I feel really awful after spending the whole day on Instagram or YouTube. But what else am I supposed to do with my time? To my mind, this is just the societal evil we have been given to deal with – just as our parents had to deal with industrial smoke, and their parents had to deal with feudal overlords or something (I don’t think I have the timelines right here – but you get my point). I know I am never going to get off social media (at least not in the foreseeable future) but sometimes I like to remind myself of why and how it is bad. Salem Tovar has a great video essay on this in case you’re interested.

She talks about how comparing our real lives to the constructed lives of others online, or even the constructed online version of our own life, can make us feel bad about our existence. No surprise there. You can see a variation of this phenomenon everywhere. Take Snapchat dysmorphia for example. You become so used to see a filtered version of yourself that it makes you cringe to look at your actual face. But more than your physical appearance, looking at other people live out their lives online makes you question, and be unhappy with yours. I know all of this firsthand because I am guilty of it too. I took a trip recently (I’ve spoken about it before) and while the sights were beautiful it was a very difficult journey. For the most part, I was cold and uncomfortable. I got motion sick frequently because we had to travel by car and our driver really wasn’t interested in how many of his passengers made it back alive, including himself. But my god, if you check out the pictures I posted of the trip, you would think I was in heaven. And the captions! What a bile inducing mix of happy and inspirational quotes. Really, if I was someone else looking at my profile, I would call me some not-so-polite names. And then wish I was on that trip. Only to find out the trip mostly consists of nausea and shivering, and very little heaven.

Right at the end of the video though Tovar says that while it isn’t feasible to expect people to go off social media entirely, you should definitely take breaks from it. Another thing you should do is romanticise your life.

The best example of what romanticising your life looks like are Studio Ghibli films. If you haven’t seen any yet, do yourself a favour and watch one. The absolute joy of watching those characters do their everyday mundane tasks in the most beautiful way possible almost makes me cry. Making food, drying clothes, cleaning your house – everything is done with such love and care. Plus there is always the best lo-fi music in the background. So, taking inspiration from these movies, and Salem Tovar, here is how I have been romanticising my life recently.

House Plants

House plants are like little low maintenance buddies you can have in your room. I never understood the appeal of being a plant mom till I visited a cousin of mine who is absolutely crazy about gardening. Her entire room is filled with all sorts of plants – it takes her half an hour at least (from what I saw) to finish watering all of them. Her room looks magical. And my quality of sleep in that room was unlike anything I have experienced in a long time. So, I decided to get some of my own. I have about five right now. They give me something to do every morning, and they also give me company the entire day. I didn’t think it was possible, but having plants around me also makes me feel less lonely.

Scented candles

This is something I have loved for a long time. I love good smells. You know how they used to say that being told you smell good is an ‘elite’ compliment? I totally agree with that statement. Nothing makes me happier than to be told I smell good, or that my room smells good. Earlier though, when I wasn’t making my own money, I wouldn’t buy these candles. I grew up in a household where buying scented candles would be regarded as ‘wasteful’ expenditure. Not to mention frivolous. But ever since I have come into my own money, I’ve decided to spend it on things that make me happy. I’m not some whiz kid with money, but I know buying one or two scented candles a month isn’t going to be the reason for my debt crisis. I light one every evening, and it does wonders for my mood.

Bookshelves

I don’t mean that I buy bookshelves on the regular to romanticise my life. I just like arranging them differently once in a while. I like setting my books according to size, according to colour, and sometimes even according to authors. I have started putting little decorations on my bookshelf. It isn’t much, but it makes me very happy to look at it whenever I cross it.

Coffee

I think I have mentioned if before. Earlier I would drink coffee just to stay awake – as a sustenance thing in office. Now, I’ve started getting into the different kinds of coffee beans there are, new recipes, the whole lot. Also, interesting fact, I read somewhere that in Turkey (in the middle ages) it was perfectly alright for women to divorce their husbands if they couldn’t provide their ladies with coffee. Honestly, given where I am in life, this seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition.