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

Vitamin T: Your Pill for Transport Back in Time..or into the Future

On The Time Traveler’s Wife

by Audrey Niffeneger

The Time Traveler's Wife

I often wonder…what with all the inventions, innovations and the world literally at our fingertips now, why haven’t scientists invented a time machine yet? All limited resources follow the basic norm of economics. But time, the most limited of all resources, defies it – you can’t save it, can’t return it, there is no credit for wasting (read overspending) it.  Hence, making a more compelling case for people to find a way to manipulate it.

Think about how much time we spend thinking about time, either about traveling ahead or turning it back. I wish I could have done this or that, if I could change this, if I just knew this before…

We have medicines to cure the most complicated diseases, reverse the impact of age, even a science to predict future, why not have, say, a Vitamin T for Time? Popping a pill could give one more hours in a day, a 500 mg may even catapult us into the future for some time, or a Slow Release version of the pill that could slow us down and transport us back to the past for a bit. I know I’m getting carried away with this, but did anyone think cloning was possible 50 years back?

That was just some food for thought. In the meanwhile, till someone really manages to make this real, we can continue to feed on sci-fi books and movies. My recent read gave me a lot of fodder for this: The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Debut novel of author Audrey Niffenegger, it is a love story set in an unusual backdrop of time traveling. I have to say, along with the “bestseller” and “major motion picture” labels on the cover, it should also have one that reads “water-works”.

In the book, the protagonist Henry De Tamble suffers from a rare genetic anomaly, called Chrono-Impairment that causes him to involuntarily travel through time, to the future and to the past. His destinations are tied to his subconscious – places and times related to his own history. For instance, he visits his wife multiple times during her childhood, almost accompanying her growth from childhood to adulthood…on the other hand, he also tends to keep going back to the scene of his mother’s car accident in which he lost her to death. It’s not unusual for Henry to run into the other Henry from some other time period and help him out of a jam.

Difficult to comprehend? Yes it is, indeed. But Niffinegger makes this sound so real that at one point I felt compelled to google whether this is a real disease (feel free to laugh at me over this, I felt incredibly stupid for doing so myself).

Grown up Henry traveling back to Clare (6 yrs old)

Henry traveling back to Clare (6 yrs old)

Using the alternating first-person style, the novel narrates the stories of Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. When 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry at the Newberry Library in 1991 at the opening of the novel, he has never seen her before, although she has known him most of her life. She has adored him for most of her life because he has been popping in and out of it since she was 6 years old.

This makes it mind bogglingly confusing at times, only to make sense after a coupe of pages or chapters and sometimes not at all. But the riveting he-said, she-said, he thinks – she thinks account makes you feel closer to the characters and keeps the reader engaged. You never notice when the story and the characters creep under your skin.

The book traces the evolution and strength of the love story that is fated to endure the trials and tribulations of Henry hopping around through decades, front and back, disappearing at odd hours with no guarantee of where he will be or when he will return. Sometimes hours, sometimes days (Ahem, does this sound too different from normal men? As a footnote, Niffenegger did write this novel after a series of heartbreaks, we can see the analogy).

The love story is endearing because of its simple, Erich Segal, expression. I don’t pretend to know what love is for everyone. But I do know that knowing everything about that person, especially the faults, but wanting him or her anyway, does define love. The book conjures beautiful images of that definition.

Niffenegger’s depiction of the relationship is romantic and realistic, humorous and intense. Her portrayal of their love reminds me of a parent-child relationship.  No matter what the circumstances, parents don’t have the option of breaking up with their children. Henry and Clare play those roles alternately with and for each other. You can see that when you can’t imagine Henry time traveling without Clare to travel to and from.

Their relationship stands the test of daily frustrations, absences; and despite yourself, the longing and uncertainty crawl out of the pages of the book to sting your eyes with tears.

At some point, I did wonder which aspect I enjoyed more: the love story or the opportunity presented by the book to ponder over the functions time can play in our daily lives.

Time does a lot of things for us – it heals the way logic, reason and medicine cannot. It is our companion, always there in the past, present, future…watching us grow, even facilitating achievements and success. Who ever achieved anything without deadlines?

My favorite moment of the book – Henry’s helplessness at not being able to prevent bad events from happening, despite knowing of them prior to their unfolding.  His explanation reminds you of the most fundamental laws of life: “There is only one free will, when you are in time, in present. In the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there”.

We’ve always been coming to where we are currently since our time began. There is no amount of time travel that could perhaps change that. As much as we may repent/regret/ want to change the past actions, if not those, some other circumstances would have led us to exactly where we are now.

Also, life, in general, is all about timing. As Stacey Charter says, “(with time) the unreachable becomes reachable, unavailable becomes available, unattainable…attainable, and have patience, wait it out. It is all about timing.

So often, I have found myself frustrated at things not going my way. And each time, have also found that those delays were not denials, that what eventually does come your way was worth the wait.

Coincidentally, I purchased the book when I really wanted to hold onto time. I was at a Barnes and Nobles store, in New York on a bright sunny summer day, with a hotdog stall staring straight at me through the glass door. It was perfect.  My flight back to reality was the following day and what I wouldn’t have done for a Vitamin T right then.

Which brings me to the million-dollar question. Henry travels to the past more than the future. Which I thought would be an interesting question to ponder for each one of us. If you could time travel, would you travel in the past or in the future? (Hence the poll below, punch in your preference, this makes for an interesting dipstick)

My guess is this would be a tough one to answer. As you think about this, do read the book, it is certainly an entertaining read… if you are a romantic, definitely. If you enjoy thinking about science fiction stuff and time machines, you may find yourself wondering about the authors’ mechanism for this, but not necessarily find the answers in there.

But most importantly, for those of us, who frequently itch to be in the future or in the past, it provides a good reference to understand that the trajectory of time travel that we are actually used to, of moving one day at a time at the rate of 60 seconds per minute into the future, has a critical function for us. Displacement of this one-way street, backward or forward, might be more distressing than one would think. Vitamin T, like all other pills, could be counter-productive if overdosed.


We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some take us forward, they’re called dreams.”Douglas Adams

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: