Sunday, January 29, 2006

What I'm reading now ... Are You Ready to Succeed, by Srikumar S. Rao

A friend of mine recently asked, “How can a cycle-rickshaw driver in India be happy?”

This question was not a hypothetical one. This person had recently traveled to India. One detail that struck him most was his interaction with a cycle-rickshaw driver in Varanasi. My friend told a joke, and the driver—scrawny, prematurely aged and extremely poor—burst into a wide, authentic smile.

Was the rickshaw driver a happy person, despite a life of grinding poverty? I have no idea. But he made me think.

“The question isn’t how can Indians be happy,” I said. “It’s how can Americans be so unhappy.”

We looked around at the breakfast crowd at Balthazar—surely a place of “making it,” New York-style. The patrons sure looked busy, but they didn’t seem all that happy. Shouldn’t we be a whole lot happier, given how much better off we are than most of the world?

All of which brings me to a book I recently read, Are You Ready to Succeed, by Srikumar S. Rao. He analyzes why people are so unhappy with their jobs and lives in the U.S., and what they can do to change things.

Rao’s book is based on a popular course he’s taught for the past decade at Columbia business school. Whereas most books that dare to use variants of the word “success” in their titles focus on mastering the external world, Rao’s book is all about mastering yourself. He rejects the core Western belief that achieving more of something (more money, more recognition, more free time, more skinniness) will make you happy. Instead, his goal is to help you transform your life by dealing with your biggest impediment to happiness—you!

If I can boil Rao’s prescriptions down to two basic elements, they are: (1) mastering your own mind, and (2) accepting the idea that the universe is a cooperating, positive force rather than an indifferent or antagonistic one. The book argues that one’s perception of reality is merely a construct and that it’s possible to change this construct, for positive results. Many of the exercises in the book aim to help the reader master his or her mind, by reexamining our stories about how our life actually works, overcoming negative chatter, surrounding to reality rather than fighting it, and so forth. Ironically, it’s by achieving self-mastery that we finally are able to achieve what we want in life.

Rao establishes up front that all of his insights have come from other, greater teachers. His book is consistent with principles of acceptance and detachment found in Taoism and Buddhism, as well as the teachings of numerous Christian, Muslim, Jewish and nonreligious sages over the centuries. As I read the book, I was reminded of a number of other influential works, including The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron), The Power of Now (Eckhardt Tolle), Wishcraft (Barbara Sher), Finding Flow (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi) and Authentic Happiness (Martin Seligman).

What Rao contributes to this literature is a coherent definition for what personal mastery actually is, and a coherent plan for achieving it. Hence, I’m reading it for the second time, and this go-round actually doing all the exercises!

Rao is clearly focused on an educated, professional audience, the types who are likely to be skeptical of books like this and therefore the ones in most desperate need of their teachings. I recommend it. If you’ve ever wondered why, no matter how you try, you always seem to fall short of “making it” in a way that is personally meaningful, this book offers plausible explanations and workable solutions.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A New India, or just New Year's Eve? (Part 2)

The party gets going…

Our first day in India was New Year’s Eve. We were resigned to letting jet lag claim us but, as night approached, Cheryl and I started to get that old New Year’s Eve feeling of “hey, we want to do something!” Our hotel was holding a major fete, stretching across its three restaurants and all public spaces. But despite the lure of the thumping bass notes, the thought of paying a hundred bucks for dinner and the possibility of getting caught on the ActionCam being broadcast in the lobby were deal-breakers. And frankly, the handful of early attendees made it look more like the Davis Polk employee Christmas party than a must-attend international soiree. So we hoofed it to a nearby mall.

First we dined at “Punjabi By Nature,” a packed restaurant where we sampled various tandoori delights to the background of American rap music. I allowed myself a Blue Lagoon cocktail and a big pile of naan to get into the mood. Then we popped by the record store to check out the latest in Indian pop music. “What’s essential? What should we bring home?” we demanded. It turns out that Indian record-store guys are like record-store guys all around the world. They conferred and debated in Hindi and then ran around the store pulling out various party mixes, soundtracks and bangra hits. I demurred on Fifty Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying” but did purchase “Everybody on the Dance Floor!” Then we wandered over to Passion for Tea, a tea shop that featured employees in Baskin Robbins-type caps and a karaoke machine! Though nearly empty, this was clearly the place to be!

It’s showtime in New Delhi!

A young guy in a brown polyester suit manned the machine. His commitment to singing song after song in the face of complete public indifference led us to believe that he was the MC. Though he had some melodic challenges (“Hotel California” is a stretch for the best of us), he did maintain a consistent level of enthusiasm, and we respect that! He gladly yielded the mike, and Cheryl and I stepped up to sing “Take Me Home Country Road.” The crowd, ever-growing, responded with cheer and enthusiasm to the slick New Yorkers, and hip Indian girls burdened with boring dates boldly made eye contact with me. I later attempted “The Greatest Love of All” with far less success, but my voice-cracking didn’t seem to matter. No attitude here, the party was on!

The average age of the crowd dropped with the mercury as the night wore on. Yuppies gave way to twenty-something couples, who were replaced around midnight by skinny adolescents wearing low-rise distressed jeans, rocker t-shirts and international teen expressions of utter ennui. Still, we all managed to blend and appreciate our diversity in the big crazy world that is modern India.

We chatted with the MC. He revealed that he wasn’t a tea shop employee at all, but rather a college grad working in his family’s plastic bags manufacturing company. Passion for Tea was his personal clubhouse. After a long day manufacturing bags, he came here to chill and be artistic. As my personal trainer Doug might say, “Nice.”

Equally fascinating were the karaoke videos themselves. Instead of the usual blond people walking around Japanese parks ponds in Japan, each one featured—perhaps as a special Korean branding device?—three rubberish grey cartoon characters who performed ever-changing aerobic routines to the rhythm of the music.

These rubber characters were transfixing, yet their weirdness raises a broader question: where the hell were we? Were we even in India? Or were we just gross tourists hanging out with Western wannabees? What’s real in India?

What's real, anyway?

Even though I tend to resent these kinds of question when I get them from other travelers (especially “sandalista” types—Euro, American or Australian backpackers who talk about “sustainable travel,” rarely wash their hair, and seem appalled that I have an American Express card) I have to admit they are legitimate. When I read articles written about other parts of the world, the reporters always seem to be interviewing doctors, professors and architects even if they’re in, like, Kurdistan.

It’s easy to think that India is on the fast-track to the first-world when you eat at “Punjabi by Nature” or read Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World Is Flat” (currently the number-one seller in English-language bookstores in India). We Americans make all kinds of excited generalizations about whatever country is in the news, and now it’s India. We hear regularly about the hundreds of millions of people in India’s middle class. We see Indians increasingly as smart and successful people. You can hardly throw a Frisbee on U.S. campus without hitting an Indian person with an 800 GMAT. Columnists like Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristoff exhort American kids to get off their fat, lazy asses, given the fact that hundreds of millions of Indian and Chinese kids are busy studying and planning their entries to the Intel Talent Search rather than playing Grand Theft Auto. India is happening!

The context…

Those facts are true, but here some others: only five percent of Indians speak English “comfortably” (in the words of writer Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, and author of the great book, “The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change”). Another ten percent operate in English with minimal proficiency. Eighty-five percent don’t speak English at all. There are close to 200 million people in the Indian middle class (more on this later); at the same time, 260 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day. Seventy-six percent of Indians don’t have access to flush toilets, and more than 40% of the country is illiterate, including more 50% of women. (These are mostly 2002 data.) Out of 162 countries, India ranks 127 on the UN’s human development index. So India isn’t Europe, it isn’t Taiwan, and it isn’t Mexico.

That being said… we Americans had better get off our fat, lazy asses because change is a-coming.

India is different now. It’s more prosperous, more worldly and, most of all, more confident. In the late 80s, I heard a lot of things like, “We have five thousand years of civilization, what else could we need?” You don’t hear this much anymore. Instead, you hear the buzz of activity: new construction, GMAT coaching schools, and social and political change, in addition to the economic ones.

A key part of this is the emergence and growth of the Indian middle class. Observers say that the growth in the middle class is the key to transforming a poor country, and they are right. The middle class increases in numbers when poor people move up. The average middle class person in India, placed in the U.S., would seem really poor in material terms. But being middle class really has to do with aspirations and values—using education, hard work and savings as methods of moving forward—and as far as I can tell, the 200 million or so members of the Indian middle class have these in spades.

One middle-class story

I’ll give you an example—a friend from my foreign service days I’ll call Pradeep. He never graduated high school, and his wife is illiterate. Seventeen years ago, Pradeep was a contract laborer for the U.S. Embassy. He worked as a gofer and earned 20 rupees a day (less than US$2). Now, at age 43, after nearly 25 years of service, he’s risen to data entry clerk, and is an employee of the embassy rather than a contractor. He earns about US$300 per month.

But here’s the thing. Pradeep is building a house. His son and daughter are in private schools on an extended day program. They go to school from early morning until 5 or 6 pm. After homework and dinner, they are allowed watch cartoons for half an hour before they go to bed and start all over again. Pradeep’s household does not have a car, does not have a washing machine, and has extremely few material possessions. But they basically have everything they need to move ahead in life. Pradeep used to be poor and now he’s not. His wife is illiterate, but his daughter reads Harry Potter. I’m confident both his kids will go to college. The family is movin’ up.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Return to India! (Part 1)

I’m in India and have so much to tell. But first, let’s talk about me!

I usually think that the biggest benefit of travel is that stepping out of your normal world changes the way you look at yourself. Usually upon my return from some place foreign, I’m all set to launch the newest New Michael Melcher. This trip, however, gave me an opportunity to do something even better: revisit the Old Michael Melcher, or at least a particular vision of myself I’ve been carrying around for a couple of decades.

I shall explain.

First, a bit of background…

My first real job was as a junior office in the Foreign Service. Just months after I turned 24, I was dispatched to Calcutta with a black passport and a zeal to see the world. As an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, I was charged with public diplomacy, which consisted of informational and educational…well, it wasn’t all that clear what I was charged with, which turned out to be part of the problem. Anyhow, I did spend nearly a year in India, mainly in Calcutta with two months in New Delhi. Afterwards I went off to Taiwan.

Living and working in Calcutta were difficult for me or, as we say in resumes, “challenging.” I had a difficult, WWII-vet boss (and was inexperienced in “upward management”), went through big culture shock (despite my image of myself as an experienced world traveler) and was pursuing a dramatic, long-distance relationship, which I had—naturally—started just a few weeks prior to leaving the U.S. At the four-month mark I got really sick, which depleted my remaining reserves of confidence and peppiness. And there were some additional factors, such as institutionalized homophobia of the Foreign Service under the Reagan administration. (In a bizarre, Kafkaesque scene, the U.S. government once put a friend on mine “on trial” for being gay, with the intention of yanking his security clearance and thereby ending his career. Though he managed to keep his job, this is not the kind of thing that encourages one to make one’s career with the government.)

Anyway, even though things improved quite a bit at about the halfway point, I was very relieved to leave India. A year later, I left the Foreign Service altogether. Because things had not worked out the way I wanted them too and I had gone through moments of pain and confusion, I tended to think of my Foreign Service experience as a sort of personal and professional failure. When I’d recount my time overseas, I would mention a few interesting anecdotes but typically emphasized the negatives. If people exclaimed about the unusual and interesting aspects of my experience, I would often make (or think) self-deprecating rejoinders.

I also made the great error of youth, which is to over-generalize and over-personalize everything that happens to you. (It’s all about me, right?) I therefore made many of the inane assessments you can make in your 20s about work and life. I had fallen behind, had fallen off track, was not where I should be, had some explaining to do about my choices, blah blah blah BLAH. Now in my glamorous and enticing adulthood, even hearing myself think about this kind of juvenile negative self-absorption makes me tired!

Now, on to the insight!!!

Well, guess what? It turns out that story I have been carrying around since 1988 about my year in India is….wrong. It’s a significant misinterpretation of what actually occurred. Sure, the remembered episodes took place—assorted gastrointestinal conditions, culture shock, air pollution, low staff morale, a boss that told me not to speak Bengali to our Bengali constituents because it would be “counterproductive” (you figure that one out), not to mention the nagging, gross sound of crows outside my window every morning. But lots more happened as well!

This became quite clear during the five days I recently spent in Bombay with our wonderful hosts Ranjana and Sanjeev. Ranjana is a sweet friend from my Calcutta days who is now a high-powered (yet fun and caring) business exec. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade, since she was studying for her MBA in the U.S. When I lived in “Cal,” Ranjana was part of a group of American, European and Indian students and hangers-on who boarded at a place called the Ramakrishna Mission (nicknamed the Swamiramayana Dingdong Institute for Meditation and School of Hotel Management). I used to have bunches of them over to my enormous apartment for dinner, partly for company and partly to provide professional fulfillment to my cook, who found it boring to cook for me alone.

Ranjana and Sanjeev are the consummate hosts, attending to our every need—car, driver, cook, shopping tips, and most of all warmth and conversation. My travel companions—my mom, Trini and my friend, Cheryl—and I ran around Bombay doing various things but also spent several hours each day just talking with our hosts. What I discovered was that Ranjana and I could crack each other up for hours just remembering and reviewing that year. Some of it was recalling the internal dramas of the Ramakrishna mission crowd; my cook Jan Alam (who wrote “happy birthday Melcher” on the special cake he made for me); the boring, self-important people who hang out at Consulate functions; the tendencies of Bengali intellectuals and their foreign groupies to overhype everything related to Rabindranath Tagore; the diet contest I organized at the consulate, the female Indian student who stalked me when I got home. You know, challenging people and wacky experiences—your basic entertaining dorm chat.

We also talked about current things: economic and political reforms in India, the cultures of the nonprofit vs. private sectors, and the parallel between self-important Washington DC and Delhi on the one hand, and fabulous, free-for-all New York and Bombay on the other.

These conversations exploded the way I had been remembering my India experience. I saw a much more complex and positive reality. My year in Calcutta had been challenging, sure. Who wouldn’t be challenged? But all things considered, I did pretty well. I managed to create an interesting, vibrant life. I made good friends. I learned tons about India and the world in general. And I didn’t hurt anybody! Things didn’t work out that way I planned, but when do they ever? In fact, I’m going to give myself a post-hoc “A” for that year. Just because I can.

My two little coaching takeaway points from this:
(1) If you focus too much on how things are supposed to be, you miss the great things that are actually happening,
(2) It’s worthwhile to reexamine the stories you tell about your own life. They might be totally wrong.

Calcutta in the late 80s was really a trip! I’m glad I was there. :-)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Owen the hippo and his best friend Mzee (the tortoise)

In case you haven't yet seen this teardabilicious story, read on: