success- a radical redefinition

Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb — I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness.

People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys.

These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfillment will follow.

But in the lives of the people I’m talking about — the ones I really admire — something happened that interrupted the linear existence they had imagined for themselves. Something happened that exposed the problem with living according to individualistic, meritocratic values.

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril. Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn’t part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.

Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed.

They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.

So how does moral renewal happen? How do you move from a life based on bad values to a life based on better ones?

First, there has to be a period of solitude, in the wilderness, where self-reflection can occur.

“What happens when a ‘gifted child’ finds himself in a wilderness where he’s stripped away of any way of proving his worth?” Belden Lane asks in “Backpacking With the Saints.” What happens where there is no audience, nothing he can achieve? He crumbles. The ego dissolves. “Only then is he able to be loved.”

That’s the key point here. The self-centered voice of the ego has to be quieted before a person is capable of freely giving and receiving love.

Then there is contact with the heart and soul — through prayer, meditation, writing, whatever it is that puts you in contact with your deepest desires.

“In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us,” Annie Dillard writes in “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” “But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other.”

In the wilderness the desire for esteem is stripped away and bigger desires are made visible: the desires of the heart (to live in loving connection with others) and the desires of the soul (the yearning to serve some transcendent ideal and to be sanctified by that service).

When people are broken open in this way, they are more sensitive to the pains and joys of the world. They realize: Oh, that first mountain wasn’t my mountain. I am ready for a larger journey.

Some people radically change their lives at this point. They quit corporate jobs and teach elementary school. They dedicate themselves to some social or political cause. I know a woman whose son committed suicide. She says that the scared, self-conscious woman she used to be died with him. She found her voice and helps families in crisis. I recently met a guy who used to be a banker. That failed to satisfy, and now he helps men coming out of prison. I once corresponded with a man from Australia who lost his wife, a tragedy that occasioned a period of reflection. He wrote, “I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.”

Perhaps most of the people who have emerged from a setback stay in their same jobs, with their same lives, but they are different. It’s not about self anymore; it’s about relation, it’s about the giving yourself away. Their joy is in seeing others shine.

If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.

I can now usually recognize first- and second-mountain people. The former have an ultimate allegiance to self; the latter have an ultimate allegiance to some commitment.

Their moral revolution points us toward a different goal. On the first mountain we shoot for happiness, but on the second mountain we are rewarded with joy. What’s the difference? Happiness involves a victory for the self. It happens as we move toward our goals. You get a promotion. You have a delicious meal.

Joy involves the transcendence of self. When you’re on the second mountain, you realize we aim too low. We compete to get near a little sunlamp, but if we lived differently, we could feel the glow of real sunshine. On the second mountain you see that happiness is good, but joy is better.

Excerpted and condensed from ‘The Moral Peril Of Meritocracy‘ by David Brooks for The New York Times

GIF by Julie Campbell

perfectionism = constant approval- seeking. drop it.

‘Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”

Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’

‘Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.’

Excerpted & condensed from Brené Brown’s ‘The Gifts Of Imperfection’

Art source unknown, modification (labeling) my own

fail a lot. it’s good for your work.

‘It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. “Original thinkers,” Stanford professor Robert Sutton notes, “will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas—especially novel ideas.’

‘…how do they (originals) maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.” Consider Shakespeare: we’re most familiar with a small number of his classics, forgetting that in the span of two decades, he produced 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Simonton tracked the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, measuring how often they’re performed and how widely they’re praised by experts and critics. In the same five-year window that Shakespeare produced three of his five most popular works—Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—he also churned out the comparatively average Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, both of which rank among the worst of his plays and have been consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plot and character development. In every field, even the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences. When the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six pieces by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach. To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit. Picasso’s oeuvre includes more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, not to mention prints, rugs, and tapestries—only a fraction of which have garnered acclaim. In poetry, when we recite Maya Angelou’s classic poem “Still I Rise,” we tend to forget that she wrote 165 others; we remember her moving memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and pay less attention to her other 6 autobiographies. In science, Einstein wrote papers on general and special relativity that transformed physics, but many of his 248 publications had minimal impact. If you want to be original, “the most important possible thing you could do,” says Ira Glass, the producer of This American Life and the podcast Serial, “is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.” Across fields, Simonton reports that the most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume.* Between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, Edison pioneered the lightbulb, the phonograph, and the carbon telephone. But during that period, he filed well over one hundred patents for other inventions as diverse as stencil pens, a fruit preservation technique, and a way of using magnets to mine iron ore—and designed a creepy talking doll. “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear,” Simonton notes. Edison’s “1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” ‘

Excerpted and condensed from Adam Grant’s Originals: How Nonconformists Move The World

GIF source unknown

(Emphasis my own)

start wrong. it’s okay.

Don’t wait for the right answer and the golden path to present themselves.

This is precisely why you’re stuck. Starting without seeing the end is difficult, so we often wait until we see the end, scanning relentlessly for the right way, the best way and the perfect way.

The way to get unstuck is to start down the wrong path, right now.

Step by step, page by page, interaction by interaction. As you start moving, you can’t help but improve, can’t help but incrementally find yourself getting back toward your north star.

You might not end up with perfect, but it’s significantly more valuable than being stuck.

Don’t just start. Continue. Ship. Repeat.

– Seth Godin

(Emphasis mine)

Stammering- Personal insights into a complicated neurological condition

Learn well your grammar,

And never stammer,

Write well and neatly,

And sing soft sweetly,

Drink tea, not coffee;

Never eat toffy.

Eat bread with butter.

Once more- don’t stutter.

Lewis Carroll

This is from a man whose stammer prevented him from joining his dream job of clergyman. I can sense the sadness in every word of his poem, but you probably can’t. How many times have you spoken to someone who struggles to get their words out? At school, college, work, or social gatherings there is always someone you try to avoid. Not because he or she is unpleasant but because holding a regular conversation with them seems like a chore. As you try to control your impatience at the delay in their speech, they grow more desperate to get it out. Their face spasms and contorts in trying to form the words, their hands sweat and clench. The words are blurted because they come rushing at an embarrassing speed. Some of you understandably but insensitively try to help, by prompting, or completing their sentences for them. Some of you wonder why these people seem distant, rude and arrogant, while in reality they are only shielding themselves from your casual judgement. 

If my assessment of people who interact with stammerers seems bitter and accusatory, it is because it is. Stammerers learn early on that they will be judged, dismissed and laughed out of a room even before they have entered it. They learn that their stammer is fair game for convenient put- downs, even from close friends and family. The likelihood that a stammering child is bullied is high, as I was. As a stammering teenager you watch your peers hold the most casual conversations with an ease and fluency that you can only wish with all your heart you had. Living in a state of constant anxiety, insecurity, under confidence and low self worth is normal. 

I have stammered. I have felt my heart pound at my ribs at the thought of having to say ‘Present’ at roll call in school, choosing to say ‘Yes’ instead, knowing that P’s were my nemesis and had more than once caused me to be marked absent because I was unable to get past them. I have felt my face go red in shame at school while trying out for debates. I have preferred to stay at home in the evenings, choosing a book over playing with friends, because  play involved conversation, and I couldn’t put myself through it. I have hesitated to make or receive phonecalls, sweating at something as simple as talking to a stranger to order pizza. I have watched orators and grieved as I asked myself why, despite knowing exactly what I wanted to say, despite my knowledge and my analytical abilities, my speech refused to cooperate. I have gone to multiple speech therapists, learned how to play a conch as part of breath control training, tried to speak while tapping my finger at every word, sung out entire phrases, even spoken to myself in mirrors in pretend conversations. Nothing worked. I was miserable. 

One day it subsided. My crippling inability to speak the simplest of words and sentences became a thing of the past. Confidence flooded in as I found coping mechanisms to comfortably mask my stammer. I did and do this by substituting trigger words. Every stammerer has a directory of replacement words filed away in their brains, a whole thesaurus. I also use strategic filler sounds like ‘ummm’ and ‘errr’, which help me bridge speech gaps in a conversation, mimicking a thought gap where there is none. Sometimes, I use this incremental split- second purchase of time to fish for a substitute word or phrase that is easier to say. 

It is very difficult to explain to someone who has never stuttered what it feels like. Everyone has experienced a hesitation or loss for words while speaking. Stammering is not that. Everyone has experienced a tongue tie or palpitations standing in front of a huge audience. Stammering is not that. Stammering has an underlying neurological cause, a sort of wiring defect in the brain, which causes the speech muscles to not respond to the command given. If speech is the display or output and the command to speak is the keyboard or input in a computer, stammering is the computer programme freezing momentarily, not responding to any command. Instead, you have an annoying spinning hourglass (a la Windows 95), the working cursor of your worst 90’s nightmares. The spinning hourglass is the stammer. The operator bangs on the keyboard in frustration, but nothing appears on the screen. The only option is to wait for the program to self-correct and respond or Alt-Ctrl-Del. The stammer might occur on any word without warning, like a program glitching on a pirated Windows 98. Some words are more frequently affected and ‘glitch’ in times of stress, anxiety or excitement. 

Even though stammerers struggle with basic fluency, the condition does not correspond to any cognitive learning or motor disability. Stammerers can take solace in the fact that some of the brightest minds in history have stammered-  scientists, actors, politicians, even great orators. Isaac Newton, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and King George the VI are some prominent names. But even these people struggled with social skills and insight, because debilitating anxiety and social phobias come with the territory. Newton had all windows closed while speaking so that his stutter would not be heard by passersby on the street. In the 2010 film The King’s Speech, Colin Firth playing George the VI expresses his shame and frustration thus- ‘If I am King, where is my power? Can I form a government? Levy a tax? Declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.’ It is my humble opinion that these anxieties and phobias contribute to the severity of the condition. Anxiety causes stammering, and stammering feeds anxiety. The circle is vicious and indescribably hard to break.

Stammering cannot be cured, in the sense that it never truly goes away. The severity waxes and wanes depending on the occasion and the age. Research shows that a large portion of children stammer, but the stammer generally goes away by 3- 4 years. A very few unlucky ones carry it to older ages. Among these, the stammer subsides in the late teens for some lucky children, like it did for me. Rarely does its full blown paralysing form carry on into adulthood. To reiterate, techniques like intentional slow speech and anticipatory pauses, strategic word substitution and use of filler sounds are helpful. I can now mask it to the point that people who don’t know me intimately are surprised to know how difficult it was for me to answer the roll call in school everyday. War is what happens when language fails, says writer Margaret Atwood. I have been at war with myself in my head for as long as I can remember. 

There are certain conventional treatments available. They never worked for me, so I hesitate to recommend them. I believe that therapy should only be aimed at addressing the extreme anxiety associated with the condition. Developing self- confidence, letting go of all embarrassment, learning to accept yourself and your every flaw also go a really long way in reducing anxiety and by association, reducing the severity of the condition. The importance of surrounding yourself with people who ignore your stammer completely and talk to you normally cannot be emphasised enough. I am blessed in having found this support in my wife. Stammerers are hyper-aware of the response their stutter invokes in people, so they are constantly watching closely for even the smallest involuntary sign of discomfort- like a facial twitch, eye roll or flinching or wincing. It helps tremendously if you make the conscious effort to not react. Whatever you do, just please don’t acknowledge it. Unsolicited empathising or sympathising of any kind adds to the humiliation and the helplessness. As I have mentioned previously, don’t reveal your impatience with prompting and attempts at completing their sentences for them. Even well- meaning advice, like ‘Speak slowly’, ‘Breathe before you speak’, ‘Just relax’, ‘Calm down’ or ‘Remember your speech therapy techniques’ backfire and do more harm than good. You can’t tell someone with a fever to cool off. If you are one of those who laugh at stammerers, find them funny and believe that they are only good to play bumbling idiots or provide comic relief in Bollywood films, you are welcome to roll over and die. 

To conclude, be nice to the stammerers in your life, but not in an overt or demonstrative way that damages their sense of pride or already fragile self esteem. Respect that they are constantly fighting a battle harder than you can imagine. Believe me, there is a way to engage with stammerers without making them anxious or self-conscious, but only you know what it is. As with anyone else in life, there are ways to hold conversations without making the other person feel foolish or bad or regretful for wasting your time, because that’s what stammerers think they are doing. There are ways to be kind without hurting their feelings. The burden of making you comfortable with our stammer does not and should not lie on us. I have always believed that if something is important to you, you will make an effort to get it right. You could make a start by watching films like The King’s Speech and Rocket Science that depict this condition with accuracy and sensitivity. You could read up on it at the British Stammering Association website , at the Stuttering Foundation website or at the many other resources available online. Several stammering forums now exist, where stammerers and those close to them find ways to help each other. 

I would like to end with another quote by Margaret Atwood, who I have not read but admire, and wish I had. Word after word after word is power. I think she meant it for writing, but it also applies to speaking, to fluency. As someone who has been denied that power for a very long time, I would urge you to be grateful that you have it in abundance. 

Thank you for taking time out to read this. 

Sri Vatsa