Monday, September 19, 2011

Who to listen to

Everybody has an opinion. One is bombarded with advice on how to love, how to be happy, how to find fulfillment, how to make money, where to invest, what to wear, which attitudes to imbibe ...

Which opinions should you listen to, and which ones should you regard as entertainment?

The first rule is to disregard those opinions which constitute a moral hazard. A "moral hazard" is not about morality, but about accountability. If someone is paid to offer advice, but the advice carries no guarantees, the advice is a scam.

A guru offers you life-altering advice. He is paid to act wise. But he disowns any responsibility when your life goes haywire. Buyer beware.

A chairperson from a gender studies department in a university writes a bitter book about how to act towards the opposite gender. That book costs money. And she is in a tenured position. But when you are going through a child custody battle, she has little money to offer for the child's maintenance, but instead asks you to get it from the "child's father". Whoa there!

A broker sends you investment advice, but puts in a disclaimer about absence of liability. That's a joke.

A management "leader" or "consultant" offers a seminar costing a bomb. A lot of suckers go to such events. But he is not there to recompense you if his advice backfires. He is laughing his way to the bank.

An advertiser pushes a product on you. He is paid to do so. You indirectly pay him if you buy the product. Can you take him to court for misleading you? You must be out of your mind.

A movie describes dating to you, and how to have a fun one-night-stand. And you paid to watch it. Enough said.

NGOs, which would otherwise go out of business, tell you to not get your kid vaccinated because vaccines are "harmful". Will they compensate you if your kid died of a disease?

The lesson is: take advice only from those people who, if you suffer, will suffer as well. Listen to your parents, your spouse, your closest friends, your manager and your subordinates. Read papers in scientific peer-reviewed journals as the scientific reputation of the writer is at stake. You don't have to agree with them, but their advice is valuable in that it does not carry a "moral hazard".

Any other advice, treat as entertainment. Nothing is for free. And if you are getting a message for free, look closer at who is paying the speaker and whether his reputation depends on it being falsified.

The second rule is to evaluate whether the advice has helped the adviser, or whether it is being applied in their own lives.

Gurus will tell you not to be materialistic. Are they themselves living a spartan life, as per their guidance?

Shrill spinsters will rail against patriarchy ruining the possibility of a happy marriage. Do they continue to be in a happy relationship after discovering the secret?

Politicians urge you to work for the nation. Religious leaders ask you to be deeply devotional and humble. Do they look like they are themselves altruistic or devotional or humble?

Such advice should be considered perversely educational in making you reconsider the forces which lead to a state of non-patriotism, domestic violence, materialism. Do not discard a long-standing tradition without understanding how it evolved, and what forces were historically responsible for its growth.

The third rule is to look for humility and the admission of fallibility. If the adviser gets angry when you disagree with him, or if she starts calling you names and takes criticism as a personal affront, or if there is no way the opinions can be verified or falsified, you will be wasting your time in arguing with such a person.

Truthy conclusions and firm, categorical, eternal statements sound wise, but are usually anything but.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Degrees and Aspirations

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an unemployed young man from Punjab. He had an impressive list of worthless credentials. He is a B.Tech. in Electronics Engineering, and an MBA in HR & IT. He couldn't find a job and was seeking help.

Digging deeper into his resume, I noticed a few things: He had completed both his degrees from a local college in Phagwara, a small industrial town in Punjab. These private colleges have mushroomed in the last decade or so, and have almost no real faculty or facilities. Almost every state in India now has a "Technical University" which grants permission to these colleges to award degrees but does little else.

He had completed a few trainings at some local industries, and his English skills were sub-par. A Resume is like a dating site photo. If someone looks unattractive in that photo, or if someone's resume contains errors of formatting and punctuation, it is not a good sign.

I asked him why he had gone for an MBA. He said he couldn't find a job after his graduation, and "the college wanted me to stay on because I was a good sportsperson." After his MBA, he did land a job in a local bank branch, as a "Business Development Executive", a euphemism for an account salesman who cold calls and approaches random strangers to convince them to open an account with the bank.

He resigned from that job after a month or so, because he saw it beneath his dignity to do a job which was also being offered to people who had never been to college, and, perhaps not less importantly, because he was a failure at salesmanship.

When I asked him what kind of a job he was looking for, one of the first words that came out his mouth was: Abroad.

I reflected on his predicament and these thoughts came to my mind:

A degree from such an institute is worse than not having any degree at all. All this qualification does is raise the aspiration of the person holding it. When something is commonly available, it is not possible to flaunt it. But it does make you feel more "deserving", and therefore reject the humble job offers which come your way.

People want to go abroad and are willing to be a janitor, but won't be a salesperson in their own city. That is not hard to understand. In a foreign country, your ego is protected because of you being an anonymous outsider. One is willing to do a menial job there, but not here, where people will look down upon you and will speak in hushed tones to embarrass your family. People are even willing to go to war-torn countries like Iraq, and to distressed economies like Greece or USA. Life as an immigrant is quite harsh in these places, but at least one is free of "society" and its gaze.

This is also the reason why unemployed Sikhs from Punjab, especially from agricultural families, would rather go abroad than find a job or seek opportunities in a big city in India. They have been accustomed to feel a racial and cultural superiority over other races and religions in India, and the mutual back-slapping which occurs in their home regions is cruelly absent in the big cities. There you are only as good as what you can get done. Your name, your caste, your ancestry means zilch to a money-minded employer. You will rarely come across a Sikh beggar or a Sikh rickshaw puller, because that is an insult to their egos.

Markets are cruel, and if you insist on a "high-status" job, you have to prove yourself better than other candidates. Merely having degrees from a low-rung institute is no guarantee at all. Ads for air-hostess jobs in India don't ask for a college degree. They don't need it. If you are suave, smart and are willing to be trained, you are in! An engineering degree is, theoretically speaking, a vocational qualification, but only if the institute is known to impart real education, and not just a piece of paper.

One comes across news headlines in India which go something like: "MA working as a sweeper", "PhDs lining up for peon jobs", "long queue of government job aspirants", "long lines of visa applicants" when on the other hand, the newspapers are full of ads requiring helpers, salesmen, and so on. A few years back, we were unable to recruit a housekeeper in Punjab who would take basic care of an infirm elder lady suffering from Alzheimer's.

The security guard industry, a big one in Indian metros, is mostly populated by north-eastern Indian men. The maid industry, another big industry, is similarly populated by north-easterns and poor Bengalis. Cab drivers are mostly from eastern UP. Why are north Indians absent in these jobs?

It is because they feel destined for higher-status jobs. And this aspiration has been further fueled by them getting worthless degrees in their hands. When this aspiration is repeatedly thwarted and they get frustrated, they take to drugs. Drug-addiction in Punjab youth is probably higher than in any other state.

In India, opening a small business is seen as a climb-down from a desk job in which pension is assured. Only some castes should be selling, the culture goes, the higher castes should dress well and go to a proper office.

And the market doesn't give a damn about the caste and what you think you deserve.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You are what you did

How do people define themselves?

Their are many ways to do it. One can look at the circumstances of one's birth ("I am an American"), the college one went to ("I am an Ivy League graduate"), the skills one has ("I am a computer engineer"), the qualities one thinks one has ("I am a friendly person"), one's spouse and children ("I am a husband and a father"), and so on.

Another way is to define oneself by one's goals. "I am a seeker", "I am an entrepreneur", "I am a student", ...

Yet another way is to define oneself by one's opinions, likes and dislikes.

I think all of these can lead to delusions about oneself.

Let me propose a much more tangible way to describe and evaluate oneself, and thereby, to describe and evaluate others.

Ask yourself, and others, what they did.

Not what they are going to do, what they think they are going to do, what they think they should do, what they think others should do, what others think they should do, what they want from life, what they regret in their lives, but what they did.

A corollary of this question is that one must have been in a position to make a choice about what one did or did not do. Hence, childhood is mostly excluded, so is schooling (unless one chose to drop out!), one's family, one's ethnicity, one's basic appearance, the economic circumstances of the region one was born in, etc.

So, once again, ask yourself, and others, what they did when they had a choice in the matter.

This will lead to surprising insights. This will cut through the projections, the illusions, the idealism, illusions of distinction and individuality, and of course the blame-games.

People like to think they are different. But when it comes to action, humans behave in surprisingly similar ways. People will say money is not important to them, people will tell you that they are altruists, and they are explorers, people will tell you they are forgiving and loving. Those people include yourself.

In effect, the putting forth of this question is asking for Evidence.

An unintended effect of holding this question with you as you go through life is: one must live with the fact of one's past acts. If your primary identity is through your past acts, and if you wish to improve yourself and "be" a better person, then you must act in better ways, starting today.

Not tomorrow, today. Everybody is going to be better tomorrow. That doesn't count.

Another unintended effect of defining oneself in this way is to reduce the influence of consumption, even mental consumption. Reading, watching TV and films, web-surfing, listening to music, window shopping or actual shopping, eating, are all non-acts. They are a preparation for action, if anything. What do you do after you've provided energy to your body and food to your mind? Sleep?

Writing is an act. Reading is not.

Cooking is an act. Eating is not.

Traveling is an act. A package tour is not.

Computer programming is an act. Buying or having a smartphone is not.

Discussing a film is an act. Watching a film, and reading others' discussions about it is not.

Doing work is an act. Getting a paycheck is not (in itself) an act.

Spending money is an act. Saving money passively is not (though portfolio management is an act).

This also means, that you must get out of your head and start interacting with other people and other objects. Intellection is useful, no doubt, but a small act is infinitely better than a big idea which never sees the light of day. Thinking about loving someone is to delay the act of loving that person.

Before one knows it, years go by and one's mind becomes a graveyard of thoughts not acted upon, ideas still-born due to lack of motivation to express them, opportunities lost because of indecision, adventures not undertaken because of fear, people shabbily treated because one wants to be achieve one's goal and then be generous or good...

If a typical day goes as: wake up, read the paper, watch the news, go to office, read the emails, go to meetings, respond to requests for information, have lunch, surf the web, read more news, absorb office gossip, go back home, watch TV, have a few drinks, eat and sleep, then it may be time to wake up. And no, Virginia, I don't mean for you to look through a catalog of vacation packages.

An old quotation goes something like this: Life is what happens while you are busy planning for it. A more precise phrasing of this would be: Life is what does not happen while you are busy planning for it.

Pondering over this, one might find that one seems to be alive, but not really.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Men and Women, part V

Some interesting, and thought-provoking, reading on post-feminism, masculism, and gender roles: