Archive for » August 22nd, 2011«

* In a winning team, all the players surrender their individuality

The process of making a cake illustrates this concept.

To make a delicious cake, the baker blends all the ingredients, till they lose their individuality. The sugar is no longer in its crystalline form, it has disintegrated into tiny, almost invisible particles and adhered to all the flour particles. The oil has lost its individuality and coated itself to all the particles of the flour and sugar. So is the case with all the other ingredients. And when the cake is baked, the ingredients further penetrate into each other and become a totally new entity, the delicious cake.

What if the ingredients do not like to surrender their individual shape and nature?

Think of a cake in which the sugar particles remain in original crunchy form and refuse to blend? Or some blobs of oil remain in some places? The baker would throw out such a cake.

Transplant this concept to a team.

It is the job of the team leader to integrate the performances of the members of the team, till they no longer show their individuality! For this, he has to apply just enough heat, not too less or too much, as long as needed, for them to intimately mingle their performances with that of their teammates, each of the players surrendering their individuality. Then the resulting team performance will be as pleasing as that of a delicious cake.

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* Do you want to be a Ball or the Player?

Imagine a soccer field and a game going on. Two entities are very active in the field. One entity are the players and the second entity is the ball. Both are moving fast and very busy in their own style.

The players see the opposite goal into which they want to kick the ball. They focus on the ball at every moment. They keep on kicking the ball towards the opposite goal while preventing  it from going into their own goal. They recognize the positions of their team mates at every moment and pass on the ball to them as needed.

Now look at the second equally busy entity, the ball. It is not sitting idle either. It is also moving all the time. But what a different kind of movement! The ball is waiting for some player to kick it. If no player kicks, it sits helplessly on the ground waiting to be kicked by a player. It knows no goal and has no capacity to choose its path.

Many of us get into the groove meant for a lifeless ball. We wait passively for someone or some circumstance to kick us in some direction. We feel we are helpless. But we are all born as players, living under the illusion of being balls.

Can we stop being a ball and act like a player, choosing a goal and creatively kicking the ball towards the goal, using every tiny opportunity, collaborating with the teammates?

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* It happened suddenly!

As a maintenance engineer in a continuous running plant, I had to face sudden stoppages of continuous running machines due to mechanical defects. I had to answer the management for the consequent losses to the company. My people would tell me that the machine was running fine yesterday or a little while back and it failed suddenly. They claim they could not have detected and prevented the failure.

I used to practically demonstrate what might have been happening this way. I pick up a paper weight and place it in the middle of a small table. The table is clear of any objects form the paper weight to the clear edge. I move the paper weight intermittently in steps of a few inches. After the first move I stop, look at them and say “Nothing happened!”. Again I move it a little and say “Nothing happened”. Again I move an inch and say “Yes, nothing is happening”. I keep on moving the paper weight in this manner till the paper weight falls on the hard floor with a thud. Then I shout and say “The paper weight has fallen suddenly. It was OK a few seconds back!”. People invariably smile and admit that something adverse or unusual was happening gradually before the failure that they were not observing carefully. Or they were seeing some unusual symptoms but felt they were harmless, not worth any corrective action. The gradual deterioration from the healthy condition has to lead to total failure some day, there can be no escape.

This could apply to many aspects of life – sudden burst of reactions of people, sudden crisis of some kind etc. We ignore the preceding occurances or symptoms and underestimate their significance. These accumulate over a period of time and one day result in a (sudden?) failure of some kind.

If we keenly observe what is happening around us in things and people and know what is a normal and healthy situation and what is a deviation from it, we can predict where this gradual negative change will ultimately lead to and what could be it’s consequences.

If we take corrective actions in the early stages when we see the adverse movements taking place, the adverse event can be aborted. The so called sudden developments can only happen when we close our eyes to what is  happening gradually or choose to ignore or underestimate their significance.

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* It is only a Little!

This article looks at what ‘a little’ can do using three metaphors

  • The earth bound balloon
  • The dusty mirror
  • It is only a drop!

 The Earth Bound Balloon

We took our 4 year old daughter to a nearby village fair, walking with friends. Daughter bought a gas balloon and enjoyed playing with it, till we reached home. Once home, she lost interest in it. Left to itself, the balloon floated to the ceiling with the string hanging down. Looking at it made me curious.

The balloon had gone up because the weight of the gas inside it is lighter than air in which it is still floating, thus creating an upward force which is higher than the combined weight of the balloon and the string. If I attach a sufficiently heavy string, the balloon will come down close to the floor. Then I would trim the string a little at a time. What will happen? As I continue trimming the string a little at a time, the balloon will be going up a little at a time and a stage would be reached when the upward force trying to lift the balloon will equal the downward force due to weight of the balloon and string. When that happens, the balloon should have no tendency to either go up or come down. It should remain suspended mid air at whatever height I place it, neither going up nor coming down. Good in theory, right?

I began testing the idea by attaching a heavier and longer string and brought the balloon closer to the floor. Then I cut a little string, at a time. The balloon started going up a little, every time I cut the string. It reached a height of about 3 feet with only a fraction of an inch of string lying on the ground. After a few tiny cuts, only the tip of the string was touching the floor. Then I cut only a tiny bit of string, excited with seeing my dream of the balloon suspended mid air. Guess what actually happened?

The moment I cut the last tiny bit of string, the balloon went up quickly and touched the ceiling. My dream was shattered. I tried to redo the experiment by adding more string and cutting the tiniest bit I could. Even after many attempts to refine my technique I could never cut just the right bit of string to keep the balloon and string suspended mid air. Either the balloon touched the ceiling or the string touched the floor. After many attempts, I gave up on my dream, reconciled to the fact I could never exactly match the upward and downward forces.

The unexpected phenomena I witnessed set me thinking. Just before I cut the last bit of string, the balloon was close to the floor, unable to go up. When I cut almost invisible bit of string, the floor-bound balloon soared up quickly and touched the ceiling. If I did this experiment in open air, it would have gone into the clouds and still higher into the sky.

What does this mean? Because of the last tiny bit of string, the balloon appeared to be incapable of going up. The moment the balloon shed ‘a little’ bit of weight, it went up quickly to an unbelievable height!

Into Real life 

Let us bring this concept into real life. It could be that our performance in any field of life is low and we consider ourselves a failure because we are burdened with a little bit of downward pull – lack of motivation, not enough concentration, not enough effort etc. We may not be even aware of these little burdens pulling down our performance. The moment we shed this ‘little negative’ stuff, our performance may reach unexpected heights (sky high?) which we never even imagined possible! There are two preconditions for this sky-high performance to be realized.

First, this magical going up after cutting a little bit of string happens only at that critical stage when the upward force is almost matching the downward force, being just a tiny bit less. It is only when this ‘little less’ upward force becomes a ‘little more’ than the downward force that the magical going up happens. Till this state very close to perfect balance is reached, the balloon is cursed to be earth bound.

Looking at our failure to improve our performance, in spite of making serious efforts, we may think that we have a major handicap. We may feel like an utter failure. This may not be true. Like in the case of the balloon, our performance may be at the threshold point and when we trim a little negative downward pull, it may go up. We may be ignorant of the threshold status and what is that last bit we have to shed. If we keenly observe what is going on, we can see that every time we cut the string, the balloon goes up a little and the tail of the string lying flat on the ground gets smaller. This observation should give us hope that something positive is going on by cutting the bits of string and keep on cutting more tiny bits. Same concept applies to our performance.

Secondly, the little net uplifting force should be present all the time (24/7) for the balloon to continuously go up. It is not enough to give it an upward push once in a while and expect it to not come down when the push is not there. Applying this concept it to our performance, the practice of going the extra mile should be continuous and never ending.

When both of the above conditions are achieved, nothing can stop the balloon or our performance from reaching great heights.

The Dusty Mirror

Imagine a mirror covered with a thin layer of dust. You can hardly see your face in it. If you can’t clean it quickly and see your face, you may conclude that the mirror is useless. You may walk away from it, feeling frustrated. The mirror costing a lot of money is treated as useless, just because of – a thin layer of dust! Imagine the power of these worthless tiny particles of dust over the costly mirror!

What is the weight of the layer of dust compared with weight of the mirror? If you gather all the dust together, it can be held between the tips of the thumb and index finger.  So little! The weight and volume of the dust is an infinitesimal part of the weight of the mirror but it has the power to make the whole mirror useless! What do we need to do to make the mirror useful again?  A paper towel, a little water and a couple of minutes of cleaning effort are all that we need to do to restore the mirror to it’s glory!

Seemingly ineffective or useless people may also be covered or bugged by tiny bits of negative thoughts or behaviors. All that may be required is a little effort on their part to clean those out. Then their performance may shine like a clean mirror. The time and effort required to clean out the negatives may be very little, as little as that required for cleaning a dusty mirror.

It Is Only A Tiny Drop

Imagine a big plate of food filled with delicious food items set before you. You are tempted to eat immediately. Just then  someone told you that a drop of deadly poison had fallen on it. Suddenly all the intense attraction you had for that plate of food disappears. It is replaced by terror.

The tiny drop of poison is an insignificant part of the total weight or volume of the food items. But all their value is destroyed by that tiny drop.

In a like manner, a person’s or an organization’s value or goodness can be destroyed or greatly weakened by a small but persistent lapse in performance. How can one avoid such potential drops of poison? The best insurance is to be totally receptive to smaller lapses and errors seen by own self or reported by others, take them as blessings and correct our thinking and action patterns. We may thereby avoid the danger of such drops of poison destroying our plate full of strengths.

Related pages
A lifeless gets a grand new life
It happened suddenly
Androcles and the lion

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* The frog who jumped out and escaped getting cooked

Changing any of our current habits is a daring attempt which is prone to failure due to the hidden blocks. If we don’t have appropriate strategies to deal with these blocks, our attempts will fail, in the short term or long term.  The frog story brings out this concept.

A person wanted to cook a frog for a meal. He dropped it into a pot of boiling water. The frog felt the sudden shock of heat, panicked and jumped out of sight before he could do anything. He thought for a while and got a brilliant idea. He put the second frog in  a pot of normal tap water. It was swimming happily. He then placed the pan over the stove and turned on the lowest flame. The water was getting warm very slowly. The frog did not feel any threat, just a pleasant warmth. Its metabolism was adjusting to the warmth. He continued increasing the temperature a little at a time. The frog did not panic. After a long time, the temperature crossed the upper limit for the metabolism of the frog to function. Its heart stopped functioning. It died without realizing what was going on. The person enjoyed the meal with the nicely cooked frog. Of course, a story!

Our current set of habits is like that frog. Our attempts to change them is like cooking that frog. If our current habits sense our attempt to change them, they will escape the change by creating some very smart and apparently valid excuses against the change. Our strategy should be like that clever person in the story.

We need to practice small changes irregularly, instead of attempting major change or practice regularly. This will soften the resistance and panic towards the change in status quo. We repeat these small changes gradually over many days, weeks or months. The new practices will get integrated with our established habits. They get practiced automatically without even us thinking about them. That was how the current habits got established! At that stage, intensify the new practices a little more. Gradually add a few more small changes.

Keep on repeating this clever pattern till the old habits are changed to the desired degree or totally changed.

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* The corporate monkey

Some people practicing the ‘Focusing on breathing’ technique give up after a few days, not finding any significant benefit. Their approach may be self defeating, as illustrated by the story below.

Once upon a time, there was a monkey who was highly result oriented, like a supercharged corporate executive. Somebody gave him a bunch of peanut plants and asked him to plant and water them every day. The plants would in due course produce peanuts that he could enjoy. The monkey was excited. He planted them and watered them. He was sleepless that night, thinking about the peanuts he would get next day. Early morning, he rushed into the garden and pulled up the peanut plants one by one, to see how many peanuts each had. Finding none, he was disappointed. He planted and watered them again. On the second morning he again pulled them all up but did not find any peanuts. He continued this process every day. When will he get peanuts?

Moral of the story: Don’t abort the process if you want the result. Immediately, a valid question arises. If we don’t check frequently, we may not get the expected result at the end and might have wasted precious time. We need to gain confidence that the process is working and will ultimately yield results. Yes, the healthy approach is to look for signs that the process is working, like healthy new leaves appearing on the plant, showing the plant is healthy and growing.

Applying this concept to the practice of ‘Focusing on breathing’, as long as you find a little comfort from the initial practice – like some improvement in sleep onset, duration, interruptions etc. that can be attributed to this new practice, we should feel a little bit happy and confident the process is working. Continue the practice and expand it step by step, as suggested in this website. Every bit of comfort is a precious gain, as we are getting it without investing anything in practicing this method – time, money, effort and not even belief! We are only utilizing the wandering times of the mind, in an unstructured manner. The cumulative effect of the practice will show significant benefits for mind, body and relationships in a few weeks or months (1). You don’t have to wait for years. Of course if you are not ready for change no technique or practice will be of any help. Read the ‘Walking on gold coins eyes closed’ story at (2).

(1) Benefits (Anger to Willpower)
(2) Walking on gold coins, eyes closed

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* I hated the garbage and I stopped hating it

How is that? There is a story behind it.

After many months of postponement, I started my morning walks while working in my company. I chose a dirt path around the boundary wall of the housing colony of our company, to avoid meeting known people, having to talk to them and breaking the walking tempo. This path had the frequent hazard of a band of monkeys that used to chase people some times. I used to pick up a stick and carry it for that stretch.

Most of the path was peaceful and was a visual feast of green trees, early morning sounds of birds and an occasional ‘good morning’ with a known person. It was a wonderful break from the concrete, steel and continuous streams of people I was seeing throughout my working hours.

On the first day, at the mid point of the path, I smelled the faint stench of garbage. As I walked on, the stench intensified and became progressively unbearable. I was distressed that the beautiful and peaceful path I had chosen was marred by this stench. I cursed the garbage and blamed the people who chose this place. I almost ran past the length of path with the stench, feeling relieved when the stench stopped.

The next day, having known the spot from where the stench would start, I would anticipate the stench even before it was felt. Automatically the disgust at the garbage would arose in my mind. Day after day the garbage and it’s unbearable stench became a prominent part of my morning walk experience. I tried to minimize the duration and impact of the stench by taking a deep breath, holding my breath and walking very fast for that stretch. I would resume breathing after the stench stopped.

I stated hating the garbage every day and the hatred was accumulating. Even before I reached the starting point of the actual stench, I used to anticipate it and start hating the imaginary garbage and the imaginary stench. Soon the actual stench would join the imaginary stench and actual hatred join the imaginary hatred.

This prolonged (or so I felt) disruption of an otherwise peaceful morning walk was bothering me. After a few days of this very unpleasant experience and going through the drill of holding breath and walking fast, I started reflecting over it.

It led to an internal dialogue. Who was the culprit? Who else but the garbage spreading the unbearable stench? “That stinky garbage is spoiling my walk!” Why am I hating the garbage? Because it was giving out the unbearable stench. What do I expect the garbage to do? It should stop giving out the stench. What smell do I expect from the garbage? Why not the opposite of stench? Do I want the garbage to give out a pleasant smell – of  lavender, rose or jasmine? Yes, then I will be very happy and may even love it.

The moment the above thought arose, a smile came on my lips realizing the stupidity of my thinking. My attitude towards the garbage changed dramatically.

What am I asking from the garbage, to smell like roses or at least not smell at all? Am I crazy? If it does not give out that unique garbage stench, it can not be called garbage. It will of course stop smelling bad when it fully decomposes. Yes, this is what I want from it –stop smelling bad. But, if it decomposes and stops smelling, it will no longer be called garbage. It’s name will then be ‘Compost’. Then I felt silly for hating the garbage for it’s stench. My persistent hatred of garbage came to an end. I stopped hating garbage. Garbage is only exhibiting it’s inherent nature by giving out the stench. It is least bothered about who is getting offended or hating it, let alone my tiny self. It does not even recognize my existence.

After some time, this concept spread into other life situations. I used to dislike some people for their unpleasant behavior. I applied the garbage concept to their behavior. Being human beings with higher capabilities, they are capable of being nice to some people and nasty to some others. It is their nature to behave badly towards me for which they may have their own reasons or they may be retaliating to my own nasty behavior towards them about which I might have conveniently forgotten.

There are two dimensions of suffering here. The first dimension is the direct suffering due to the unpleasantness of their behavior. The second dimension which is more intense and longer lasting is their indifference to my suffering.

What can I do to avoid these two kinds of suffering? When I can not change their behavior to a pleasant one, I can adopt the same attitude that I adopted towards the garbage. First I should accept that it is in their nature to be nasty towards me (like it is in the nature of garbage to smell bad). In other words I should attach the label of ‘Stinky Garbage’ to them. I should not wish that they change their behavior. I better avert my mind when they give out the stench and minimize it’s impact on my senses. Once the episode is over I should take it out my mind just as I forget the smell of garbage after I go past that stretch of the path.

What prevents my forgetting their nasty behavior is the secondary suffering due to their lack of concern for my hurt feelings, even ignoring my existence. It is easy to avoid this suffering as well. Treat this second aspect of their behavior as the second bad smell of a special garbage. Accept that these people have two kinds of bad smell – one is the desire to hurt others’ feelings and the second is to be insensitive to their agony or even to enjoy seeing their suffering. You can label them ‘Dual Stink Garbage’. Once labeled like this, their behavior can only bother you only when it is occurring, not afterwards. Any kind of prolonged suffering is totally avoided.

One more thought. In our last year of Engineering College our class was taken on a visit to the local sewage treatment plant. As we came close to it the unbearable stench of open sewage was felt and all of us held hankies to our noses. The person heading the plant was showing us around explaining the process. He did not seem to be bothered about the stench even one bit whereas all of us were holding hankies to our noses. As you know, every group of people has it’s own humor specialist. One of our classmates was adept at poking fun at any one – his classmates and professors as well. This guy asked the in-charge of the plant after being with him for a few minutes and seeing his unconcern for the smell. “Sir! You are so much used to being in this smell for hours. You may be even liking it”. All of us laughed heartily and the in-charge of the plant also took it sportively. Even after 40 years this remark of his rings in my ears. How close to truth was his joke! When one is exposed to anything many a time, he becomes immune to it or indifferent to it – be it the stench of garbage or the smell of a perfume.  Hence my reaction to the stench may be due to my lack of repeated exposure to it, going by my comedian friend’s joke.

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