Pursuing the More Significant

If we look into human history, there has been one question that has been either asked directly or alluded to, in all religions and cultures. This question is: What is the meaning of life? Ever since humans started thinking rationally and analyzing their surroundings, they have been curious about why things are the way that they are. From wanting to know how organisms have evolved to asking more broad questions about the purpose of life, God and the nature of the universe.

What makes life worth living? Is it a life filled with happiness and success or a life filled with purpose and meaning? Is there even a difference between the two? Recently, I read a quote by John Maxwell and the dots finally connected. He says: “Success is when I add value to myself. Significance is when I add value to others.”

While the thirst for success is never quenched, significance satisfies our deepest heart and soul. It allows us to lay our head on our pillow each night confident that we lived a valuable and fulfilling day. The pursuit of significance is a daily practice of priorities. It is when you set out on a path, focused on something important and you work towards it with dedication every day. It can be anything from a tangible goal to the legacy you leave behind one day. It truly does not matter where you begin, what matters is what you achieve at the end.

The purpose of life, therefore, is to create your own meaning  and to bring it to fruition. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer. The truth is, there are untapped sources of meaning all around us—right here, right now. We can find meaning in every scenario, event, occurrence and context. We can find meaning in the sublime, the absurd, the dull and dreary, and in the perfectly wretched in life.

Here are simple ways to pursue significance in your life:

Begin and end with gratitude:

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude. Start each day and finish each evening by thinking of three things for which you are grateful. When we anchor ourselves to the abundance in our lives, we uncover that which is most significant to us. It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude, it’s gratitude that brings us true happiness and contentment.

Value what you have:

If you need something to believe in, start with yourself. Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. And until you value your time, you’ll do nothing with it. When clearly defined, your values will simplify your decision making process and will create fertile soul for you to flourish.

Dream big, live big:

Clear out the clutter in your mind so that your dreams have room to live and grow. Set goals: Plan, execute and implement them. A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes a reality. Dream big, work hard, make it happen!

Act with meaning:

The purpose of life is not to be happy, rather it is to be useful, honorable, compassionate, make a difference and leave your mark in the world. In the hyper-competitive world in which we live, leaving a legacy is often implicitly put forth as the highest virtue. It is a way in which  we will feel valued and remembered after we have gone. It doesn’t have to always be grand, it could be something small that aids you in leaving the world a slightly better place than when you came into it.  

The Tyranny of Time:

Do not be lured into the premise that ‘someday’ you will take action, since that day may never come. Many people die with their music still in them. You’re never going to be 100% ready and it’s never going to be just the right time. This means that every moment is also the right moment. If you want it, you just have to do it!

If you don’t make the time to creating a life you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a lot of time dealing with the life you don’t want. Remember, we came to this world with a purpose. Find out what that is. It’s going to be hard, but hard isn’t impossible.

Are We Replaceable?

I remember watching the cartoon show Jetsons in my childhood, which featured a family living in a utopian future. Houses in the sky, flying cars shaped as saucers, robotic maids and pets — everything was a depiction of an unseen world.

As I grew up, I realized everyone around me was debating the benefits of technology.  Jetson’s utopian world wasn’t that great after all. One of the strongest arguments against technology was its brutal replacement of human beings. Typists, bookkeepers, farmers and many others were losing their jobs at the hands of artificially intelligent equipment.

Stephen Hawking once said that a new form of life would evolve if anyone ever creates some kind of self-improving artificial intelligence, which is superior to human beings. This indicates that human beings can easily be replaced.

But is that even possible? Can creation be superior to the creator? And how does one measure superiority? Some people debate the limitations of humans — in terms of speed, accuracy, and physical presence in time and space. However, one thing that is not debatable is the essence of a human: whatever it is that makes us human.

The most important element is the human conscience. We have a living conscience, which guides our actions through a moral code. It is the reason we can distinguish between right and wrong by following an inner instinct which stems from our values. If a robot from Jetsons was programmed to steal, it would continue to steal for its lifetime, unless programmed otherwise, since it would be incapable of listening to itself.

Second, the emotions and feelings we experience are irreplaceable. We are blessed with a vast palette of emotions which shape our experiences and responses to situations. We feel anger, happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust in every fiber of our bodies. We are often proud of how rationally we act in certain situations, but in reality it is hard to act with absolute objectivity and to ignore the role of emotions. A happy employee will do a task very differently than their dissatisfied co-worker. Can we say the same about machines? Would a pat on the back from the boss change the number of data entries an artificially intelligent computer makes?

Moreover, the strings of relationships can not be overlooked in this argument. We thrive on human connections. A lot of tasks are only possible because we leverage on the strengths of our peers, working collaboratively towards a common goal. The bonds we develop and the friendships we make allow us to grow as a collective. It is not yet possible to program machines to create bonds of friendships and achieve results through strong connections.

These things make us distinct and provide endless opportunities of growth and progress in the future.

It is important to note that technology is not a threat to human beings; in fact, it exists to exponentially increase efficiencies and augment human capabilities. Social media connects humans, virtual spaces for work promote collaboration, and access to information enhances our knowledge. Hence, It is only a matter of keeping up with times, leveraging factors that make us unique instead of competing with machines for productivity and efficiencies.

I believe technology, if used to amplify humans’ empathic action and efforts, will lead to unprecedented changes in the world, which will positively outweigh the negatives of technology.

Icon credit: Roboto from SimpleIcon

A Practical Guide to Being Intolerant

During my day job, I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. Most people have no problem being intolerant to others. Those who are not intolerant find it difficult to get along with others. Here is a guide for those, who want to be a part of the in-group.

Precautions:

There are some safety precautions you must follow lest you become tolerant. Foremost is to not think and reflect. Be lazy when you can. It always works like a charm. The second precaution is to always perpetuate stereotypes. They are there for a reason.

Technique 1: The funny ethnic joke

A recent dialogue between one of the participants at a training session:

Participant: “Sir, I want to tell you a joke.”

Me: “Please, go ahead.”

Participant: “Sir, when was Pakistan founded.”

Me: “1947”

Participant: “No”

Me: “How is that?”

Participant: “Sir, it came into being in 1940. It took them 7 years to decide who would keep Sikhs and who, Pashtuns.”

It’s such a convenient and lazy way to make others laugh. When short of humorous material, google ethnic jokes and voila!

Technique 2: The hell-bound fashionista

Overheard at malls and other public places is this oft-repeated sentiment that those who follow fashion and wear lots of make-up will end up in hell. Hidden in this statement is the assumption that modern looking people have shaky morals and they can sell their soul to the devil to buy a new branded shirt. Maybe they do! Branded shirts are expensive.

You can also add to this category the close-minded fundo, who is made fun of because of, yes, you are right, their physical appearance.

Technique 3: The ungrateful South Walay

Experienced again at a training session, when I told the participants the story of how treating my past as a burden always put me down, a participant said, “Sorry sir, South Walay hamaisha inferiority complex mein rehtay hain.” He added further, “Sir, I come from a village up North, but I am proud of my roots.” The point I was trying to make was completely lost and it became about the feud between North and South. Embellishing this technique even further is the honorable mention of the “Arrogant Central Punjab Walay.”

Technique 4: Burgers

The English-speaking crowd sits in their echo chambers and cannot empathize with the common man. They only eat at fancy restaurants and are a danger to the ideology of Pakistan. You could also add the ‘pan eating Karachi walay’ and ‘un-couth Punjabis’ to this category.

Technique 5: You are my ‘Nigga’

Not as pervasive as others, this technique also conveniently trivializes the history and travails of an entire race. Boys and girls who have just hit adolescence, find the most fun in it. It’s endearing how they use this word and there is even WhatsApp groups called “My Nigga’’ that have special friends on them.   

Technique 6: You are stupid for following PPP/PML/PTI/MQM

The most famous technique to be intolerant in Pakistan is to make ‘funny’ jokes on everyone other than your own favorite politicians. All of them are corrupt and they could not care less of their people. They deserve to be chastised till they don’t because that politician just joined your favorite political party from the rival camp.

Bonus Material

If you are bored with using the above, here is a much simpler technique: just look for how ‘different’ the other is from you. There is always physical features, dress, language and family backgrounds to make fun of.

Leader’s Toolkit

For too long, and rightly so, we have been ‘hooked’ to the ambient theories of motivation. Trying to understand the human psyche, aligning management tools to individual and group needs and make people work to get more out of each dollar, has been and is the cornerstone of research and study by social scientists and psychologists.

One such great thinker was Abraham Maslow who had a profound impact on how management was and is shaped. An American psychologist, Maslow was best known for creating the hierarchy of needs expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization. He stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms.” The five rungs of Maslow’s ladder are still taught at most universities; millenials are well aware of it, and organizations formulate their reward and recognition policies around it.

Times through these ages has repeatedly demonstrated that those who make it into history books and whose stories are told as inspirational legacies are ones who did not traverse the hierarchy of needs. They by-passed them and reached the top. The story of their journey begins in the last rung of actualization. That’s where the action happens. Prior to this, life’s rituals are around existence and survival; conditions that are not the prescription for human excellence. Think of the Nobel Prize winners; great musicians and painters; inventors and architects; nation-builders and astronomers; social workers and historians – spending decades of their life looking for that one molecule; an economic theory; a musical note that moves the soul; in quest of material to build; life in deep space; serving the ill and burying the dead – what makes them do what they do? Such tenacity, endurance and persistence is not the stuff of survival. There is more to life than filling the belly and a roof over the head. Human struggle is capable of by-passing these menial low-life form activities and launching straight into the rung of self-actualization.

Even in these travails, self-actualization is not the driving force; it is the unforeseen consequence. What is it that makes us capable of navigating past the bodily, safety, psychological and esteem needs to live a life of perpetual contribution?

Upon intense closer reflection, deep inside the last rung of self-actualization, there is another journey. This is one way of how it can be expressed:

leaders toolkit

Pride in what you do lends a firm and robust identity constituted by an unshakable ideology. This pride is augmented by a sense of service, prayer and faith. It is a spiritual experience that fills the belly, intrigues the mind and corroborates the heart. People/societies without an identity are too busy finding one; looking around to compare their own with others, falling into the trap of arrogance if theirs is better, or inferiority complexes, if worse. There is no anchor in such mental quandaries for intelligence to begin its search into the unfamiliar.

What you have pride in, you will care for. This care is ‘respect’ – the ability to repeatedly ‘see’ from the other’s perspective. There is empathy for another and kindness for the environment and resources. This state gives dignity, self-value; beyond mere self-esteem. Without this ability to ‘see’, one is stuck in self-serving traditions.

Empowerment is to recognize one’s power to think, feel and do. With the immense faith imbibed by the previous two stages, this power has to be used, resulting in a heightened state of trust – that molecule has to be studied; this music note says it all; galaxies, million light years away, must be investigated. The enormous trust in oneself is realized and trust in others (people and matter) becomes normal. Without trust, the individual is ensnared in a victim mentality.

The lens of trust makes the eye seek and unravel the unseen. Such a mind enters its veiled realms and creates, designs, scripts and formulates the new, the unknown, the fresh dimension leading to growth in character and progress. Looking at and living in the past is the reality of those not having arrived here.

The individual arrives at the locus of inspiration – everything and every moment is wonder-ful. Being awestruck becomes the natural condition that drives the order. Time and space become immaterial, resulting in tremendous contribution to uplift and unfold the mysteries that are ours to discern.

Pain and pleasure are the proclaimed motivators. Whatever we do is supposed to be guided by our instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This P&P principle drives us at both levels – the physical and the spiritual. The outcomes are different. The physical levels are the same as of animals, and remain the motivations of survival. The spiritual P&Ps are the human reality burgeoning what religion, philosophy, mysticism, aesthetics, ethics and morality prescribes for us to be.

The B Word

In a day and age where social media has become a virtual daily performance and the work atmosphere only extols the virtues of people who are charged up, switched on, working 24/7, racking up numbers, meeting targets, achieving, achieving, achieving- it becomes very easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle. ‘Work-life balance’ is merely a phrase with no meaning, ‘working hours’ are no longer ‘9 to 5’ but ‘as long as it takes to get the job done’ and ‘rat race’ is something that you are simply a part of.

When work takes its toll on your mental and physical health, your family/social/love life, and leaves no time for your personal interests or hobbies – you will inevitably fall prey to the dreaded ‘B’ word: burnout.

Coming back home at the end of the day feeling physically and mentally exhausted is a recipe for disaster and not a sustainable lifestyle. If you find yourself in such a situation, and want to try to avoid burning out, here are a few steps you can take:

1. Organize yourself: Take out some time at the start of every work day and make a small to-do list. What calls you have to make, what documents you have to review, what meetings you have to attend. Whether we realize it or not- without a plan of action, we end up spending a lot of time procrastinating, and as the day ticks on, we find ourselves becoming overwhelmed by an increasing pile of tending tasks. Make a concerted effort to wrap up as much of your work as possible during your work hours, and make a strict rule to not look at any work once you reach home.

2. Move around!: Take a walk, do some yoga, go for a run/ swim/ bicycle ride. Forget the physical health benefits, the clarity of mind that comes from physical activity can be a great stress relief and help you disengage from your mental stressors.

3. Make time for the important stuff: The things that get most overlooked if you are constantly busy with work are your relationships. Do not underestimate the quality of time and attention that other human beings require from you. You don’t have to do anything drastic! Simple steps; such as having tea with your family (during which you keep your phone on silent and in another room), keeping the weekend solely for family (and not mindless errands) or making sure you meet your friends at least once every two weeks. These may seem like small things but will go a long way in keeping you connected to the people you love,

4. Go easy on yourself: There is no shame in taking a break to recalibrate yourself. A day off if you are feeling overwhelmed, a short vacation to reward yourself for the hard work you have done.

5. Nurture your hobbies: whether it’s reading, flying kites, cooking or anything else that brings you joy and helps you unwind- don’t sacrifice it for work. You have to be selfish about your hobbies, keep a chunk of time aside to do the things you truly love, and protect them from any outside interference.

Avoiding burnout, somewhat ironically, requires some work- but a practical and disciplined approach to utilize your time effectively is what will get you the right results.

The Cloak of ‘Practicality’

What I have observed in the last twenty eight years of living in Pakistan, is that our ambient culture is polluted with aspects that take us away from a sense of responsibility and harm our integrity.

Our status quo is riddled with examples of disconnect between the ideals espoused fervently and what we actually do. This dissonance is very evident in some families and institutions. Sadly, all the good stuff that is expressed on social or professional events, often falls on deaf ears, resulting in daily practices of individuals and communities being at odds with the soundbites, which are meant to guide our behavior in a positive direction.

Let’s look at duality as a feature of our culture i.e., saying one thing, but meaning another – saying ‘yes’ to a request from your friend or boss, even though in the heart of heart, you have no intention of doing what’s needed.

I recall that some years ago, a senior lawyer and an acquaintance, requested me to act as a witness at his son’s wedding. I would have obliged, but due to another commitment, I couldn’t be available on the date of the wedding, which was scheduled a few days after my departure from the city. The lawyer comforted me, “That’s no problem.” He opened his briefcase, swiftly took out a document (nikah naama), and suggested without batting an eyelid: “Please sign here as a witness.” I was surprised, “Sir, how can I sign, when I will not be witnessing the happy occasion?!” He was perplexed with my question, and replied, “This is just a formality, and having you as a witness, even though you will not be there, will be an honor for our family. I see this as a practical solution!”

Such a phenomenon begs the question: How has duality become a norm? One of the many reasons that has made this hypocritical trait so routine, is our choice of words, which serve as ‘pain-killers’ to describe an errant act.

Our conscience, which is normally alive and vocal, when it detects incongruence in what we say and do, is conveniently silenced by high sounding words like ‘practical’ and ‘expedient.’ Such words become palliatives and are very effective in silencing the voice of our conscience, whenever we violate personal or professional ethics.

Consider this: Dictionary defines ‘practical’ as an idea, plan, or method likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances. Hence, achieving a desired outcome becomes a priority, without any regard to how it is achieved.

If ethical considerations and values prove to be impediments in the path to achievement, they are easily sacrificed at the altar of another word – expedience. Note that the word ‘expedient’ means ‘convenient and practical although possibly improper or immoral.’

Anything worth doing is difficult, and being in integrity in all interactions, is a challenge that we need to embrace. By exercising wisdom and upholding principles, in tough situations, personal or professional, we may not achieve our goal in its entirety, but we will sleep well at night.

Life is a minefield of temptations. Each indulgence promises pleasure, which is short-lived. The cost of betraying self is incalculable.

Hiding behind the cloak of ’practicality’ may benefit you in the short term, but will compromise your being in the long-run.