New Endings…before new beginnings

That’s always been the paradigm for me.  Before I get excited about the new beginning part, I get overwhelmed with the new ending that precedes it.New beginnings signal that life as we know it is going to come to an end.  In tough times, that’s a relief; but often, life as we know it, is life as we love it.

And when change knocks on that door, it comes with a bag of mixed feelings. Nostalgia, fear, nervous excitement…

Nostalgia has always been a tough cookie for me. Safe to say, I have no idea how to deal with this emotion. It hits me the minute I have to make a big change, and I’m left wondering, should I look back at happy memories and feel good… or sad that they’re over?  If I miss the past or about to be past so much, then do I want to go back to it or make time standstill, or make progress and move on?

My personal record has been to move on but not without the memories in tow – souvenirs, mementos, I carry my entire life till-date with me that makes every commute a bitch and settling a bigger bitch. Letting go doesn’t come naturally and logically to me, as a result of which, my past lands up becoming present perfect. It is perfect in the present because that’s how it always is. In hindsight, everything was always possible and perfect. Isn’t it always just in the present that perfection evades us?

Memories overwhelm me, good and bad. A heavy heart always limits that skip in the step towards the new and I’m thinking about all of this suddenly because I find myself doing the same thing all over again. In about 20 days, I’m going to have to change cities again, get back to studying after 3 years of working, and that brings its attendant responsibilities: making new friends, discovering new places, etc.  With that, the apprehension that will today’s present, the one that I love, ever return?

But that’s the thing.  I don’t think it’s meant to return. Life is full of new endings and new beginnings. The only sense I can make of it then, is that nostalgia is a pre-programmed emotion within us to be able to process this continuous change. Because it’s not always possible to just get up and leave without looking back. Because what has passed is the anchor that hosts what will happen.

Over the years, every move and change has helped me grow. I’ve been influenced by every city I’ve lived in. For instance, growing up in Mumbai, above all things, taught me about ambition. The restlessness, money, crowds, melting pots of people and down to earth glamor taught me to aspire for the best, yet stay grounded.

In Boston during my M.A. , I discovered another important thing about myself – that I operate best when I’m in discomfort. It taught me about hard work and survival – from managing a personal budget to compromising the small pleasures for the big goals.

Delhi, and this is highly grudgingly accepted, as I get ready to bid goodbye to it, also taught me something. For those of you who don’t know the city, it is known (notorious) for its flashy loud culture that is founded in blatant acquisition and display of the big brands and names. While Mumbai remains the fashion capital of India, the real fashion haven is in Delhi. Not a fan of the city when I moved here 3 years back, I have now realized that somewhere along the way, in an invisible, yet highly resisted process, I picked up on this flashiness, not as a way of life, but as a way of self-motivation.  Delhi taught me how to reward personal successes with frivolous, yet meaningful acquisitions that can sustain aspirations. Being the place where I got my first job, first promotion, first pay hike, it taught me that nothing succeeds like success and what’s a little success without a little reward like the first LV bag, or Armani sunglasses?

As I gear up to make my next move (third in 6 years), I know I will have to first get past this nostalgia phase again to finally arrive at the nervous excitement for the future. And so this time, I’m prepared for it. But once it does pass and I’ve consolidated what has passed here, the new-ness will bring hope that all new beginnings do, the fear of the unknown that brings spice to life, but most of all, the smug smile over the fact that fear of change and another ending did not stop me from moving on, from making progress…

That life as we know it, became life as we knew it, right when that second passed. You never know what happens next – but at least we have nostalgia to process the constant churn.

To new endings…

 
 

Cheers and Clinks! (2007, the Last Night at Boston)

Cheers and Clinks! (2007, the Last Night at Boston)

 

Advertisements

Life Without Carbs – Big McDull

Food and I

I have been on a low-carb diet for 3 whole days, and I think I’ve lost more of my sense of humor than weight. 

Gaucomole n Carbs

Gaucomole n Carbs

Procrastination takes a new meaning when you put away exercising for so long, leaving it for the last 5 days before the event that you’re trying to lose weight for and then you know no matter how much you exercise, you’re not going to lose anything but your mind, praying and willing for inches to fall off.

I have severely exceeded my feed limit in the past few weeks, and so I am forced to go off the  item I love most in the food universe – carbohydrates.  Yes, I crave bread like normal people would crave chocolate,   or wine, or cheese.  Today, I went to a café (rookie mistake, why would I go to a café when I can’t eat bread?).  I ordered some wine (some would argue I should be off-wine and not carbs, but I dismiss that on the grounds that wine makes me laugh and laughing is exercise). And then I ordered, ahem, a salad. To avoid seeing other people relish the joy of bread-ing, I selected the scantily populated outdoor seating. That, however, was not enough to keep the occasional whiff of fresh oven-baked bread heaven air from hitting me time and again. Three times of that and there – goodbye happiness.  Life without carbs has been dull, but it’s not just that, I also noticed I’m a lot crankier, slower to catch or throw humor, and disoriented. Essentially then, for me, it seems, food is happiness.  

dessert

dessert

Anyway, last few days have left me in a hungry daze – intelligent hungry daze because I seem to be intellectualizing everything from self-control to happiness to anxiety (you can see the disorientation). The thing is, in the past few weeks, I’ve been content and happy.  Not that I’m not that usually, but there are certain points in life, when an invisible contentment takes over, hitting you randomly in a car ride, or in the shower or while watering plants.  That slow simmering equilibrium that you notice even more after emerging from some form of unrest or uncertainty. This balance is blissful in that I have worked hard for it, earned it and most importantly,  know how to sustain it to some degree. Don’t worry, there has been no catastrophe, I’m a drama queen more than anything else. But past few months have certainly  tested patience, resilience and the efficacy of personal survival toolkit.  I’m reminded of this today because I read a fellow blogger’s post on how everything eventually passes and becomes okay. Sometimes it takes longer than it should, but then nothing and no one is punctual these days, are they?

The Tom-Yum Day

The Tom-Yum Day

This relates to food, because in the past year I’ve discovered, that food is an important part of my glamorized survival toolkit. Whoever coined the term comfort food knew what (s)he was talking about. No matter what the situation, as long as one is blessed with penny in the pockets and the strong personal characteristic of being a foodie, one has at his or her disposable the most consistent companion of chow.  A hot yummy fresh meal, served right off the oven, boasts of warmth and health for me. Sometimes also of new beginnings, hopes and even memories. I’ve thought plenty of old times, good and bad, while eating familiar meals. But every time I ate and remembered, I smiled at the memory that may have otherwise caused some cringing. When I dig into my steaming hot tom yum noodle soup,  I sense the anxiety of impending elephant tasks, slowly slipping away.  Think about it, when we travel to a new place, its food that first connects us to it, taking away the discomfort of an unknown territory. Maybe that’s why the basics of food, clothing, shelter are designated as basics. As we grow up, we aspire, we desire, and  then perspire to achieve all that (apologies for the limerick, couldn’t stifle it), but as adults, we often forget that all our infant selves needed, was a well-fed tummy to retain those gleeful toothy grins.

Friendly Lobster from Maine

Friendly Lobster from Maine

And so, as I temporarily abstain from carbs, and try to wishfully shrink my waist, I’m happy to make note that as I grow older, make more mistakes, harbor more of  reasonable and some unreasonable fears, step into predictable pitfalls and all that natural wonderful stuff, I am lucky enough to rely on my love for food and  as I like to believe, its love for me, to get me by.  Let food and I continue to be on our honeymoon, and let temporary abstinence only make us fonder and stronger.

Amen.

Your Wish is Your Command

It’s been an exhausting day…well, exhausting week, month… A huge marketing event around the corner, GMAT in 3 weeks, pending B school applications…and of course, I’m doing what I do best when there is lots to do…nothing (this seems to have become a specialty).

Positive Thinking, Ya!

Positive Thinking, Ya!

But I haven’t posted in a while; so I convinced myself that I’m really not doing nothing, but in fact relentlessly participating in the pursuit of a personal goal I set for myself 3 months back – starting and sustaining a blog.

What’s really provoking me to write this time is not a particular read or movie or place, but a thought that’s been developing as a red thread in everything around me these days. With so many approaching deadlines, my exclusive, almost patented, works-best-under-pressure Murphy’s Law has of course kicked in. And as all that could go wrong is going wrong…people around tell me to “Think Positive”.

Now if you have ever experienced Murphy’s law as described above…or scratch that, ever experienced an uncontrollable chain, not cute enough to be called comedy, of errors and mishaps, you would know the chemical reaction a statement such as “Think Positive” would release in the body. A crisis is almost not a crisis anymore till someone repeats the blessed phrase.

But let me diffuse some of those combustible chemicals for now and keep them aside to focus on this post. What is it about positive thinking that has the entire world unanimously in agreement with it? So that I don’t go all over the place with this (if you’ve read my other posts, you would know that this is another specialty of mine) let me give this discussion a structural signpost by discussing a book that lends most direct food for thought on this topic.

The Secret by Rhonda Bryne. Disclaimer:  I am neither in the camp of people who despise the book and view it as a double shot of advanced self-help, nor am I a part of the clan that’s jumping up and down with joy at having discovered the Secret and bordering on delusional while practicing it (if I had to choose, I would go with the former, but you should know, I have no bias against self-help books either, I applaud Robert Schuller for Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do!).

For those of you, who seemed to have missed The Secret revolution as it hit the world, this book is based on the idea that the universe will always conspire to bring you what you want if you ask for it the right way; that positive thinking attracts positive events and negative thinking attracts negative events. We already knew this – but the book states that this is apparently a law, one that is backed by scientific evidence that our thoughts have frequencies, which are consistently attracting the positive to the positive and negative to the negative. It works like the law of attraction, or gravity. An impersonal law that is not governed by right or wrong, but only attracts what you think and in that sense makes your wish your own command.

Let me first address the aspects of the book that made me invariably put it down multiple times until I finally decided to get it over with.  Perhaps the part I did not enjoy was the big build-up around the theory that “The Secret” has been hidden from the masses by the classes for centuries to keep the “power” concentrated in a few hands. Or the fact that it introduces the scientific law only at a 30,000 feet level, and leaves it at that without discussing any of the supposed evidence. Further, it fails to address and explain the aspects of karma and fate. How does destiny intertwine with thoughts and actions to make events happen the way they do? Or do we really bring on a natural disaster or accident upon ourselves with our thoughts?

But what I do agree with is its general premise: our thoughts do become events to a large extent. When I first read this confirmation, I felt a flurry of panic. What about monkey-minded people such as myself, whose thoughts habitually swing from one to the other within milliseconds? I shudder to think of what I may be bringing unto myself! (Although some events of my life ARE in fact perfectly explained with this theory).  But surely, there are many days that start off badly and end the same way, probably shaped by our under-the-breath muttering that kick-started the day. And certainly, there are events such as miraculous recoveries from fatal illnesses that can only be explained by positive thinking and will power.  But before I get all Chicken Soup for the Soul about this, this theory, more than anything else, reasons with my senses on a scientific level.

Because the book did not explain the science part of it, I approached Google and found a video of Dan Gilbert, best known for his book, Stumbling on Happiness (http://sourcesofinsight.com/2009/03/05/synthetic-happiness/). Here, Dan speaks about how we can manufacture our own happiness and apparently be as happy when we don’t get what we want as we are when we do get it. This is called Synthetic Happiness. Dan’s books and papers weave together facts and theories from psychology, biology and behavioral economics to prove that synthetic happiness is as real as natural happiness. Human brain can imagine its own future, and predict which path may bring it the most happiness tomorrow. But if the chosen path turns out to be wrong, then the mental stimulator can also adjust itself and synthesize happiness. The difference between winning or losing a game, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion is lesser in impact than we expect it to be.

In this sense then, if real and synthetic happiness scientifically have the same impact, and our brain has the capacity, when channeled in the right manner, to synthesize happiness, then positive thinking does lead to a happier state of mind. Whether the Universe really conspires to bring us what we want, moves places, people, time to make space for our needs and desires and whether this is truly a law as perfect as that of gravity, is still open to interpretation, experience and belief in fate. But what stands true is the premise of the book: Positive thinking does attract positivity, which converts into action and eventually leads to actual events. In that sense then, we can truly shape our future.

This hybrid theory does help me to understand the brouhaha over positive thinking. It also seeks to explain what we have heard for generations in different clichéd ways:  make the best of a given situation, live life with no regrets, events are not as important as our reactions towards them, what happens does happen for the best, etc.

In the meanwhile, as the sequel to The Secret is selling a million copies worldwide, I shall hope to find better answers for my questions in that one and practice it for my very own Volkswagen Beetle…it did say the law is impersonal with no judgments passed on the materialistic value of the needs and desires…

These are personal comments and thoughts on the book, The Secret. For a formal review, please visit http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Rhonda-Byrne/dp/1582701709

Travel-ism or Tourism?

Apparently, there IS a difference

Each time I travel, I am faced by the same dilemma. Must I follow convention and go visit all the tourist-y places in the town first, or  follow my heart that is urging me to pick up a map, walk the street, try the food, meet the people and then perhaps if time allows, go see the tourist-y spots?

Walking in NYC, 2010

 I took some time to reflect on this travel quirk. Last year, I visited Hong Kong and Macau, had a great time. Then my sister and her husband did exactly the same trip two weeks later, and came back with pictures that looked entirely different from mine! Did we visit different places?

When I pondered more, it struck me that I have been to New York about a zillion times, but have never actually taken the trouble to go see the Statue of Liberty. I know great bars, eating joints, my favorite avenues, but no I can’t say I hate or love one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Thoughts accelerating now…I am living in Delhi and I haven’t seen the Red Fort. I was in Boston for three years and I didn’t take the trouble to go on the History Walk, or the Duck Tour (you can’t blame me for this though, this tour is on a “vehicle” in the shape of a duck that first drives you around the city, and then randomly enters the Charles river turning into a boat!).

This is enough to be identified as a pattern. Am I lazy? I don’t think so; I can spring out of bed for  Six Flags at 6:00am.  If the best crepes in town are 2 hours away, I’ll put an alarm to trek there too, just to catch the freshest ones. But an alarm for a packed day of city landmarks…

I’m not saying I never sight see, I do. I have been to Agra for the Taj Mahal and everything. But I do tend towards being a slightly eccentric tourist, for which I recently found a term.  Apparently, I fall under the category of what they call travelers. I spent some time researching this and found this definition that best explains this distinction:

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

It seems a tourist is a visitor then, a traveler more of a wanderer. When I started this trip, my first alone-trip, the objective was just that, to wander. Without a time schedule to be anywhere (unless it’s a movie), arrive somewhere accidentally and marvel at the places on the way. So I did exactly that…through the streets of New York, the little Italy in Boston, woods of Maine, countryside in Texas and so on. Hungrily walking from one place to the next, only taking public transport when necessary. And I started to make mental notes on 1) handy tips, how you can be a good traveler and 2) why travel-ism maybe picking up as distinct from tourism. The How part first:

1)      Whenever possible, walk. This saves cost and is the best way to feel the pulse of the city, the smells, people, and culture…

2)      Smile at people (try not to be creepy)– There is so much you can learn about the culture of the city if the smile returned (or not returned) is wide and bright (like in California) or suspicious (Hong Kong) or brief (New York).

3)      Food! This is a big one for me; this is one research I do do. From Chandni Chowk in Delhi to French food in California, to the eclectic mix in NYC, I can’t call a vacation a vacation if I haven’t devoured the food

4)      Gain weight: Don’t bother dieting on a holiday! And this is coming from an obsessive weight freak, but I have successfully convinced myself that holiday weight is fashionable, yes it is.

5)      Taste local wine: The best wine I have had was in the oldest restaurant

Casal Gracias, Macau 2009

in Macau. I have never found it after much search anywhere in India, America or even Hong Kong! (picture alongside for reference, if anyone can find me that wine for purchase, there will be a cash prize!).

6)      Marvel – always best to set aside time to just marvel. You don’t have to miss the slow sunset over Hudson, just because you have to be at Times Square to see the night-lights. In my experience, the refreshing moments that serve the purpose of the vacation come from what you see when you happen to see it, rather than plan to.

7)      Wear flat shoes and bring a camera: these are two things I share with the tourist-y clan. Always bring a camera; even if it’s a small walk, it can be memorable. And wear flats; I have been doing this even as NYC women tower over me in their mind blowing heels (I’ve come to believe, their legs must have a nutrition inlet of their own)

8)   Laugh: if you are a traveler, you will get lost. Also since you haven’t taken the trouble to research the place, you will make a lot of other cultural or social boo-boos. But that’s the fun of it, so laugh

On why travel is picking up as distinct from tourism. I think travel in general relates back to the human need to move. Historically, our predecessors first traveled out of necessity, then for religion, migration, emigration, commerce, enlightenment and finally for pleasure. But pleasure as a reason for the need to move has been around for too long to accept it for what it is, so we spend some time intellectualizing it.

We have heard the word rejuvenate so often that it has lost its impact. But it is something to ponder. Traveling is the only time we sit still for a bit. In real life, we are always on the go. The “go” often makes us do things uncharacteristic of us; at work, we may become competitive even if we are not, in personal life there may be other pressures we may have to succumb to.

 

Central Park Zoo, 2010

Travel, from time to time, gives us the space and time to just be, in a manner that tourism doesn’t. Joseph Campbell very succinctly said that a sacred place is an absolute necessity for everyone today. “You must have a room, or hour, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

 

I think Travel-ism has picked up because it allows us to find that sacred place, where instead of getting out of the hustle bustle of real life and getting into the hustle bustle of being a tourist, it allows people to be still for sometime and come back really refreshed and ready to bustle again. So I guess, a little bit of a wandering once in a while is good. I’m reminded of the old adage, not all those who wander are lost.

 

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Lao Tzu


Visit Top Quotes, This and That for my other favorite quotes on travel. Do add in your own too!

Eat Pray Love – if books could be soul mates

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Okay,  hard one for me. This is probably how actors feel when they act in remakes of their favorite actors’ movies…or singers when they perform on a Beatles number…

But I’m going to take a cue from the book and practice Parla Come Mangi‘ – literally, ‘speak the way you eat”.  It’s a reminder – when you’re making a big deal out of explaining something, searching for the right words – to keep your language as simple and direct, just lay it on the table.

Let me say it right off the bat then, I loved this book from the first page to the last, so this is a biased opinion…in fact, if books could be soul mates, this is it, I can cuddle up to it on a cold night and everything.

If you haven’t heard of it already, this is the Julia Roberts about-to-be big motion picture (with the gorgeous, Javier Bardem as the male protagonist, loud applause for the casting team every body…)

Memoir of author Elizabeth Gilbert, it is a travelogue tracing the year she chose to travel to three countries in her “search for everything”. Italy, where else would you go for pleasure? India, for peace…ok this is seriously debatable…and Indonesia, Bali to find a balance between the two.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what did this woman lose that had her hopping around three countries searching for it. In fact, the plot does sound chic-flicky  – with a divorce and painful love affair leading to her journey into self-discovery. But here is why I think the book was a worldwide bestseller, even with the men (yes, unhhuh, I do know men who have not only read it, but also admitted to have enjoyed it)…

In endurance sports, there is an expression called “hitting the wall”.  A condition in which a runner or cyclist simply runs out of energy to go any further. Sportsmen, who have learnt the art of breaking that wall, survive; others fall by the wayside.

I think in life too, we reach a point when we sometimes simply hit a wall. Eat Pray Love is about learning the art of breaking that wall. My take – when we are born, we learn how to live on the job. We fall, we stand, learn, grudge, complain…we stumble upon life accidentally. But there does come a point, with different circumstances for everyone that makes us stop and just ponder. Is there another way for us to happen to life instead of life happening to us? One that we choose instead of accidentally stumbling upon?

The book helped me recognize that it doesn’t take a tragedy to realize this; as we grow older, we build our inventory of daily disappointments, frustrations and patterns. That inventory needs occasional purging, for the future to truly rush in. But that’s easier said than done.  Sometimes we can’t help but haul our past around for decades even. Gilbert takes an unusual route to purge hers. Not a spiritual one of abstinence, but a meticulously thought through 3-pronged strategy: eating, praying and making love happen.

There are many lessons that struck a chord from her journey and that I love the book for…I discovered that happiness is a consequence of consistent personal effort, about the healing powers of pizza,  accepting embarrassing facts about one-self, that solitude can impact our mind in ways nothing else can, the beauty of doing nothing (this is truly an art btw, from recent personal experience), that you can choose your thoughts (shocking), that eventually, good and bad, both pass… the humor in tragedy…(I have tried to cover all of these in a collection of my favorite quotes from the book. Click here to browse these)

But the one thing, that stands out as a the reason for my love of the book is summarized in the following quote:

“We do spiritual ceremonies to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”

How wonderful, I think that thought is. I’m not sure if I can think of myself as a poet, but somehow I love the idea of being my own plumber. Remodeling and upgrading myself whenever need be, fixing the nuts and bolts, in some cases maybe loosening them a little.

No matter what life deals us, I have come to believe that these self-created rituals sort of become our duty then. To enjoy life, is to let go.  This can be scary. For me, changing residences, cities, relationships, careers, jobs, all become a tad more challenging because I tend to look back for too long. I am a hyper-thinker, examining everything way too much, past, present and future. So when Gilbert sits at lunch and asks God “Look–I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?” I totally get what she means.

But what if we can truly accept, that what happens has to happen. Or let me change that paradigm a little…that what happened was never not going to happen, it changes perspective. When I examined my own life vis-à-vis this, I thought that’s true, I was never not going to be on this  break, never not working where I am, never not dated who I did, never not found friends that I did. That makes you think, if everything, pleasant and unpleasant, was happening anyway, then letting go becomes a lot easier. Does that make sense?

Our own rituals help us accept what was never not going to happen and welcome more of what has to happen. I know people who don’t wait for catastrophic events to indulge in this, they just go annually to Vipasana camps…the intensive meditation yoga camps that put you through rigorous schedule of work and prayer, disallowing any communication or speech for ten days (you can see why this could never be my ritual; I mean, I’m on my first alone-holiday and I decided to start a blog).

Gilbert identified travel across three countries in search of peace as her ritual.  The chapters trace her experience in Italy where she explores the sheer pleasure of food and nothingness. In India, with the guidance of her formal Guru, and informal Guru in a friend, (called Richard from Texas), she creates many other smaller rituals for her personal healing. In Indonesia, amongst other prophesies, she learns how to “smile from her liver” from medicine man Ketut, who teaches her “everything he knows” about life. And finally, yes, discovers love again, this time in a whole different light.

A great entertainer, this one will make you laugh, nod and grudgingly accept that you too may have harbored regrets, disappointments, could-haves and would-haves for too long.  And if you have, there is so much you may have missed out on, so much that couldn’t get in because it was houseful and a lot was yet to get out. So, fun times really…time to find your own ritual…where would you go if you had one year off?

These are my personal comments and ruminations. For a formal review, please visit New York Times Review.

Also I have changed my mind about my next post. I am putting the post on the movie “Up in the Air” as promised in my first post, on hold. I recently discovered the glorious difference between a tourist and a traveller and am itching to share that…till then, do visit This and That, for a collection of Eat Pray Love quotes. Please feel free to share your favorite ones and a completely different view on the book too, particularly look forward to the critics.

Blink, Don’t Think- What explains the famous “Gut Feel”?

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

Speed Dating is Speed Thinking. Does that make sense?

How often have you made snap judgments and been amazed at how spot-on they were? Classic one-liner follows, “I went with my gut”.

How often have you not gone with your snap judgment because you felt it wasn’t an “informed decision”. But all your due diligence lands you with the wrong decision anyway. Another classic one-liner follows, “Damn I knew It!

And then there are times when your judgment call has simply been wrong and you wonder how your instinct failed you this time ( This time, “but my intuitions are always right…”)

All of us have had the above experiences at some point or the other. Blink hooks you into reading further in the first few pages itself because you are as familiar as you are confused by your gut feel and want to know more.

Personally, reading this book was a little like therapy for me, I have to confess. Notorious with friends and family for taking intuition-based decisions, or not taking a decision because it didn’t feel right, I was joyous as I found scientific explanations for this kind of decision-making, and childishly clapped on reading about the accuracy and soundness of such decisions (Thanks Malcolm, much gratitude!).

Let’s face it; some people are at peace with the process of decision-making. I am certainly not one of them; in fact, decision making for me has been historically so stressful, that I sometimes actually wish there were no choices to choose from (this is heightened at grocery stores, in the cereal aisle, where I temporarily become anti-capitalist each time).

But can’t run away from them, can we? Our life is almost entirely, a representation of the decisions we have made. They are a part of daily life: which bridges to burn, which ones to cross?  Which career paths to go for, what friends and partners to select? Some of us need a little help. Blink it seems can provide some of that.

This is interesting. After all the flak we have received for being judgmental, about people, situations, events in the first few seconds without knowing “enough”, it turns out those few-second judgments are critical. These are what term as gut feels/intuitions/hunches.

But Malcolm doesn’t like to call it any of that. What he says about calling them intuitions explains the flavor of the entire book, the scientific inquiry that has been built up through the chapters to prove that those two seconds are thinking. It’s just thinking that “moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with thinking”. So if you’re looking for a spiritual explanation for your epiphanies, this is not the right read for you (although if you do happen to find one, please let me know)…

In those few seconds, our brain engages in “thin-slicing”, i.e., the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. This is the reason why stress is known to improve performance, because in situations such as war or emergencies, extraneous information falls out and the brain focuses only on what’s critical.

Hence, Blink. Don’t think. It made me wonder that maybe that’s why blinking is such an important part of our everyday cognition. I think maybe we do need to miss out on a little bit of information all the time as we close our eyes to blink, so that the mind can make sense of the world.

The chapters of the book have been masterfully organized to demonstrate these thin-slicing experiences, in wars, police encounters, WW2 Code breaking, medical malpractice and so on. There are others we may relate to more such as Speed-Dating. This is a classic thin slicing experience, where you’re allowed few second/minutes to get a “sense” of the other person with limited time for more information.

It makes you stop and think when a man like Malcolm Gladwell, a science and business reporter, explores the gray areas in snap judgments to finally recommend that for vital matters such as your profession, or your life partners, “the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”

At this point, I really sat up thinking, Are you Serious??

And actually, think about it, does your unconscious ever kick in for routine decisions? Like the cereal aisle, my gut has never leaped out and pointed at strawberry versus honey bran. Our “sense” doesn’t want to expend itself on matters such as cereal apparently.

It is however reassuring to know that science backs the hunches because taking calls based on hunches is both very difficult and very easy. Easy because it comes instinctively…difficult, because it may turn out to be a second guessing nightmare, especially if it is not backed by evidence, or rationale to fall back on in the moments that need reassurance.

Because sometimes these judgment calls can be wrong. In fact, one of the lessons of Blink is that to “understand the true nature of instinctive decision-making is to be forgiving of the people that are trapped in circumstances that imperil good judgment”…bodyguards who could not prevent assassinations, police encounters that killed the wrong people, your own mistakes that resulted from rushing headfirst into a catastrophe despite knowing otherwise. These are moments when we go “mind-blind”, and judgments become fragile. This is perhaps the reason when otherwise normal people take significantly and catastrophically wrong decisions. This is why it is important to know the perils of wrong judgment. This is why, in some cases, we still need information.

Gladwell acknowledges that combining rational deliberation with judgment is then the biggest challenge…we see it in our lives too; entrepreneurs looking to decide on a product despite contradicting market intelligence; women and men going head first into relationships and marriages, despite warnings from friends, families that the partnership may be bad news.

I wonder where all this fits into experience. Experience does call for good judgments. The book says it too. But doesn’t experience then by definition mean more information and this all becomes  a little contradictory? As the old adage goes, good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. 25-35 is a better age-box because a lot of our bad decisions are out of the way, paving way for more sound ones. Those bad decisions, I guess then become a part of our backstage inventory of biases, and come back in the form of judgments when needed…maybe what experience does is that it trains us to identify the perils of rapid cognition. There are people, who after bad experiences, introspect way too much. Those people perhaps fall into the other peril of introspection, where everything is over thought through, is confusing and impairing for the brain’s ability to focus on what’s important.

I wish Gladwell delved deeper into how all the bits come together. It is good to know that snap judgments are not necessarily reckless and for the intuitive decision makers like me, very insightful indeed. But it would be nice to know more about how to differentiate situations when rapid condition must be accompanied with analysis and when we can entirely trust the gut.

Let’s hope Gladwell publishes a sequel soon and delves deeper into the unconscious…till then, please feel free to enjoy snap judgments, if nothing else, they are certainly much more fun than introspection. So make that judgment and either buy the book, if u have it, then read it, if you have read it, then do share your thoughts on it…Till then, I’m going to clap some more at the thumbs up for speed thinking.

Disclaimer: This is not a review of the book,  given that I am not qualified to review a book like this; these are my personal ruminations and comments  on the read. For a more formal review, please visit New York Times, Reviews

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: