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.

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.

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.

Why do I put off everything?

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I have an exam coming up in ten days. I signed up for it about a month ago. At the time, I was nervous about the exam. I wasn’t sure if I would have enough time to study for the exam. I had an entire study plan in front of me – daily targets, weekly targets, mock exams and review.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I am still at the exact same spot – the same level of preparation I had a month ago. My study plan is still stuck to my work desk, but I haven’t done anything apart from staring at it once in a while. I’m simultaneously stressed out about my lack of preparation and not too worried because I manage to do well enough in all exams even without preparation. Just to be clear, I am not boasting here. I don’t ace my exams. I scrape by. That is well enough for me. But almost always, this is accompanied by a sense of wasted time and potential. I always think to myself – I probably could have aced it if I had put in the effort.

So why don’t I?

I think part of it has to do with a sense of security. I’m afraid of putting in effort because what if I try and do the best I can and the results are still the same? It gives me perverse comfort to know that whatever the result, I could have done better if I had tried. I know this sounds messed up, but it is what it is.

Another major reason is that I haven’t yet suffered any major consequences as a result of my habit of procrastination. Maybe I have low standards, or maybe I’ve been extremely lucky. But no matter how much I procrastinate, everything turns out alright in the end. You know, kind of like those memes you see online, the ones that say (or some variation of this) – “I pass all my exams even though I procrastinate, and this is the reason I procrastinate.”

I read somewhere though, that the reason almost all of us procrastinate is because this is natural for us. The idea of being productive in a single set manner – is a construct and has to be force fed to us. That we should be able to work for 9 hours straight, and take only short breaks in the middle – isn’t natural. Shocker, I know. I never really spend time thinking about such things – the way we are expected to work, what is considered ‘productive’ – but when I read stuff like this, it makes a lot of sense to me. I have never felt comfortable working for hours at a stretch. Apparently, what is more natural to us as a species is resting all the time, and working in short, manic spurts when we need to. This is how we have evolved. So, when we brush up against the current structure, it is no wonder that most of us don’t feel like working till we have to. I know I certainly don’t. Maybe, procrastination is normal, and the negative connotation attached to it is yet another unhelpful by-product of capitalism.

If you google the words, “why do we procrastinate so much” (as I have done many times), I’m sure you’ll find enough resources explaining the psychological reasons behind this behaviour of ours. I’ve read a few of those. I agree with them logically, but I still don’t think it applies to me. Side note, this attitude of acknowledging that negative things happen to others but are unlikely to happen to you is called an ‘optimism bias’. You should check that out too if you’re also one of those people who never think they can receive the short end of the stick. I’m just writing about the reasons I can identify for myself. I may not be the most self-aware person out there, but I got till three. So, that is something.

On resilience

I just finished reading a book called ‘The Book of Queer Prophets’. It is a short collection of essays, letters and write-ups written by people who have struggled to reconcile their queer identity with their respective faiths. People who are deeply religious, but felt that they were being pressured to give up this integral part of themselves because they had been told it comes in ‘conflict’ with another, equally integral part of their identity.

I especially loved the chapter by Jarel Robinson Brown. It is in the form of a letter he addresses to his future nephew. Here is my favourite passage from the chapter:

My saying this to you might tell you something about the time in which I live. By no means are all people free, and not many people can live the truths they know about themselves. We exist in a time when people are supposed to be unbreakable, and if they break, rather than calling them human we deem them weak. Resilience has become a requirement of this age, and only a handful of have the wit or the courage to ask of the times why resilience is necessary. Your uncle gave up resilience a long time ago, not because I do not possess it, but because it is unnatural. Our hearts are made to feel, and some minds, weighed down by the burdens of reality, break. I sometimes cannot help but wonder how much better life would be if we allowed people to be as human as they could possibly be. If we could create a world in which the masks we wear, and exert so much energy maintaining, simply became redundant.

Relatively short post I know, but I just wanted to share this before I forgot.

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.

Starting something new

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

I’m stuck. I can’t decide. Apparently, the best time to start something is now. That is at least, how the saying goes. The one about planting trees. The best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, and the second best time is now. On the other hand, this is probably the worst time for me personally to be starting something new. I have a couple of things on my plate right now. I also know that the excitement of starting something new will make me forget about all the things I already have lined up. My biggest fear is that I will keep starting new projects without finishing the earlier ones. Apparently, this is a thing in psychology too. Where you are likely to give up on something as soon as you think you have attained some level of mastery over it, or at the very least, understood the basics. On the other hand though, I don’t want to use the things I am already working on as an excuse to not start because I am too scared to do it.

Like with this blog. My biggest fear when starting this blog was that I would sound stupid. Talking about all these things that must be happening to other people, who are probably smarter and better equipped to talk about them. I was nervous beyond measure before I started publishing. I had to push myself to make this website. One of the things that helped me was paying for the domain name for an entire year upfront. I figured, I’m not going to do anything with my time till I bully myself into it. I can either get on with it, or sit on it. I decided on the former. Then there was the whole thing of learning how to navigate this site. The site is still pretty basic, but even to get to this point was a struggle. I debated paying someone to do it for a long time. I see a lot of blog pages that look so polished. I wanted one of those. But I had to stop myself. The purpose (as I often need to remind myself) is to get out of my comfort zone and learn something new. So, I did. But again, I did have to bully myself to learn this. Every time I set out to learn something new, I get frustrated when I can’t master it in the first try. Illogical as that may sound, it is the truth. Pushing past all that, I landed on a bare bones (but I hope decent) site for myself. Now, what to write? Do I have anything to contribute? Am I an expert in anything? Do I even write well? No, no and no. Agonising over my first post was probably the most uncomfortable part of my blogging experience.

In the end, I realised two things. It is no use pretending. Since I’m not an expert at anything, I decided to just write about whatever I want, however I want, without worrying about how other people might receive it. I hope everyone who reads my blog resonates with some of the things I have to say, but if not, then I am going to keep writing for myself. The only thing that matters, to my mind, is that I write with discipline and consistency. I am determined to earn the privilege of having people listen to what I say, but more than that, I am determined to read more, be better informed, become a better writer, and to write everyday.

The second thing I realised was that once you get over the fear of publishing your first post, you realise, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. No one waits around with bated breath to see every thing you do and to laugh at all your mistakes. Honestly, no one is bothered. The only person who spends all their time thinking about you is you. Everyone else is just trying to get on with their lives. So, instead of living a half life for the imaginary audience in your head, go ahead and do whatever you want to do.

This brings me to the thing I want to start next. YouTube. I’ve wanted to do this for a while now. I don’t really want to do it for any reason other than because I love making videos. But again, every single insecurity and discomfort I had when starting a blog is coming back to me magnified. I just need to remember that no one cares, so I might as well live a full and enjoyable life. Untalented as I may be, I remain entirely determined to go after what I want.

On lethargy and apathy

Does anyone else feel like they don’t want to do anything? That they don’t want to put effort into anything or go anywhere? I get this feeling a lot. It could be because I am at a crossroads in life. I took a voluntary break from employment to try and figure out what I want to do with my life. I didn’t want to live my life on auto pilot, following the same routine into old age. I read a bunch of articles on how I should take charge of my life, and then went ahead and quit my job. But ever since I have quit, I don’t know what I want to do next. No wait, that isn’t an accurate representation of my mindset right now. I don’t feel like committing to anything. The dichotomy is exhausting. On the one hand, I am convinced that if I try my hand at anything, and put my back into it, I will achieve it. Will and determination will get me wherever I want to go. On the other hand, I am too scared to pick a side and commit to it. Paralyzed by fear into inaction.

There are a ton of projects I have been meaning to start for some time now, but I just can’t seem to get out of this rut of inactivity. I read a lot about other people online living through similar experiences. In some ways, this gives credence to what I am feeling. In other ways, it makes me feel worse. There must be some way of breaking out of this vicious cycle, surely. And if so many of us are going through it, there must be something to it.

For the last four months or so, I have fantasized about starting my own YouTube channel. Not because I think I am especially talented or because I have something original to say. Though arguably, since there is only one of me, everything I say should be original. Jokes aside though, I’ve spent considerable energy thinking about how I will start a channel and what I will talk about. At first, I thought maybe I should have a reaction / commentary channel. I watch a lot of shows and read a lot of books. I am always online. Surely, I can just expend some effort and talk about the things I consume. Then I thought of making it a bit more structured. What if, instead of reacting to the same old videos (you know the ones I mean, the Big Ed getting engaged to Rose variety), I could probably take some time and make the videos more educational. Talk about the things I really care about, and not just things I find amusing or revolting. So, maybe a channel to talk about sustainable fashion, or the fact that we are depleting our oceans, or maybe even human trafficking. I have a legal background and solid research skills. If I learnt how to edit videos properly, this could be a real thing. The latest idea I have had for my channel is just to make it into an informal vlogging / talking into the camera about whatever I want kind of channel. Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that whenever I come up with an idea on how to pass my time, or on how to be more productive, I also come up with a host of excuses on how and why I can’t do that thing right now. Or why it might be better to delay it. So, in the end, I’m left with a lot of untested ideas, a host of excuses, and tangible frustration at not having moved from square 1 at all.

That is on lethargy. Accompanying my greatest nemesis is her younger sister apathy. So, what if I don’t commit to anything? What if I don’t figure out any of the things I had to figure out on my break from employment. What is the worst thing that could happen? I go back to a job I don’t enjoy and live out a life I don’t actively participate in? I recognise that this isn’t the healthiest mindset to have. I know that logically. That, however, does not mean this isn’t how I think from time to time. It is like I am always oscillating between caring too much but being afraid to act on anything I want, and not caring at all and then not having the pressure to either want anything or act on it.

I feel a little bit like an out of sorts character from a depressing Murakami book. Like the librarian who doesn’t do much but sit behind a desk and stay silent. You don’t really know what she thinks of you just see the inaction. Because that is exactly what both lethargy and apathy will get you, even if they don’t come together to the ball.