The almost morning hour. When darkness is blanketed over you, but you expect daylight to invade at any moment.
And as I look outside, I see the world filtered in through the perspective of lights. Any light, even a tiny one shines so bright in the darkness of the night. I see the outlines of the hills which shelter the valley, various shades of black and blue congealed into the pitch blackness of the sky. I see the serpentine branches of a tree outside my window, stripped out of its leaves and dignity with the harsh onslaught of winter.
And then I stop, and I look at myself. Sitting out here in the dark, digging at my thoughts. Sometimes observing, sometimes being carried away, other times trying to make them stop. There are so many of them, in so many directions, with so many purposes. The more I attempt to listen to all of them, the more its chatter intensifies.
So I withdraw. I do not listen to them anymore. I let them fly by, like a bystander observing on a busy highway. They are like the fast cars screeching by, some of them louder than others. A few invite me to come in and take a ride with them.
But I tune them out.
And slowly , these needy thoughts get dissociated from me. Silently they are not a part of me anymore. What I can now hear is the whirring of the fan, the rhythm of my own breath, the overpowering pregnant silence of the night.
And somewhere inside me, there is a relief. There is peace and calm.
It was a quiet morning in the spring of 2020. Yes, the year that we would all remember as the black swan of the twentieth century. A novel virus which was initially discovered in late 2019 in China had spread itself across the world, and we were in the middle of the most massive quarantine around the world. What it meant was that our small family of three was stuck indoors in our rented Bay Area house – as we , along with the entire world navigated on how to weather this unprecedented healthcare crisis.
The County where we lived had declared a shelter in place for all its residents, which meant that all non essential businesses were ordered to close, and residents were advised to go out only for essential chores like groceries or any emergencies. The ordinance had been in place for almost 2 months now and we had invisibly adapted to this mode of life. Weekdays and weekends blended into a flatline, and we started coming up with inventive ways to occupy our time.
And this was the start of our Family Tree Project.
Reminded of a first grade school assignment from long ago, we started working on this project of building my daughter’s family tree – picking up the abandoned pieces and data points from where we had last left off. Fueled by reignited curiosity and with ample time to kill, we began tracing out the leaves that chalk my daughter’s bloodline. We commenced with my family, tracing up to my ancestors , including my grandparents and then their parents. After a point, I could not recollect the names, so we called up my father to get them. He jogged his memory and gave me some, but soon after memory also gave up. He did not know the name of ancestors on his father’s side – including his father’s mother. She had died many years ago and no one had ever asked him her name his entire lifetime !
The story on my husband’s side was harder to fill up – we joked as he struggled to remember the formal names of some of his uncles and aunts ( yes, we Indians affectionately use pet names like Chintoo Mama or Chikoo Chacha all our lives ) . So then again we had to call my father in law, and he made a few more calls to fill the rest of the picture. Slowly the nodes started lighting up with long lost names, and for the first time in my life, I could see an emerging vignette of the many people who constituted my extended family. Indian families are indeed large ones, so after a certain point we had more than a hundred names on the page, still missing many more – which would need a more sophisticated method to catalogue and fill up.
It was this exercise of writing down the names of my ancestors that led to two consequences.
One is the realization of our own mortality in the backdrop of the raging pandemic around the world. The other one is the cognizance of how little I knew of my ancestors. For one, there were many I didn’t even know the names of , and others whose lives could not be summarized by me in more than a paragraph.
Yet these were real people who lived their whole lives with such rich experiences , gave birth to and bred wonderful children and with some combination of their DNA which fuels my existence. Many components of the way I think , how my body reacts to its environment, the processes that keep it alive have been learnt from this heritage passed on through Genetics.
It also made me realize that sometimes we are so much focused on the future that we fail to look back and make sense of our past.
Our Family Tree Project – undertaken without much forethought at the start left me with some quiet yet deep wisdom. Your history and past is written down indestructibly in time but it is a story that you will always have. It is something to own. And it is a story worth knowing more about!
It has been almost three weeks now since offices shut down, schools closed and shelter in place directives were declared to urge all county members to stay at home. This was also a time when within the duration of a few diurnal spins – the economy came to a sputtering free fall in one swift blow.
Life is going on, but we have quickly unlearned what it means to be human in the context of modern living. If you care for your community and city – stay away. Human touch is hazardous. Withdrawing from the community and staying at home has become the communal pact for survival.
The compromise dawned on us like the five stages of grief. First it was denial, then bargaining with the status quo, until we were at an acceptance of what we’ve lost. In the past, our personal places had always been a part of our daily mad rush to do things, but not really at the center stage of our existence. Over the last few days, they have become the entire universe of where we exist.
And with this , dawns a new awareness of the personal space around us.
I now know that the sixth tile in the flooring of my kitchen creaks when you step on it while leaning on the counter. And discover a nest with shrill croaks of invisible birds just outside my balcony that intensifies in the afternoons. I am aware of the harsh golden glare that sunset would bring on my favorite work spot in the living room, and I would have to take my work ( and laptop ) elsewhere as soon as the clock strikes 5.
I can now calculate that the ascending tempo of the whistling wind outside our cathedral ceilings is a prelude to a draft picking up. The kitchen windows would start rattling , so it’s time to close the patio.
The common wall of our townhome exposes us to filtered sounds from other personal spaces. I now know that my nameless, invisible neighbor gets agitated in the afternoons and plays Nirvana’s “Never-mind” on a nonstop loop until nightfall settles his ( or her? ) nerves. We joke – this grunge fan doesn’t seem to be taking social distancing too well.
The bookshelves have become the new muse – luring me with unfinished books which were waiting for an opportune time to be completed. I now look forward to Friday evenings as a way to context switch into a weekend when my home would magically switch from being a workplace to a place of leisure. Work and Life have congealed into one unified endless flatline.
The empty streets with weak signs of public life outside fill me with anxiety. Is it my imagination , or are the sirens of emergency vehicles becoming increasingly frequent over the last few days ?
On the very rare and essential scenarios when we step outside – I am now acutely wary of every cough , sneeze and sniffle around me. Every surface is analyzed for the possibility of carrying a deadly virus that would apprehend and wreak havoc on our lives. We innovate maneuvers to avoid touching doorknobs, crosswalk signs, shopping carts .. any bug smeared common surface at all costs. And then we come home and wash hands like the Macbeths.
Personal spaces have become inviolable bubbles – it is dangerous to step outside them. And yet, like a whiff of wind that suddenly blows in your face – they continue to surprise with new experiences.
This bubble is starting to grow on me. Ahem. well ..Who knew our personal spaces could be alive with such vibrant details now?
The second week of March was supposed to be just another ordinary week. The arrival of spring break , anticipation of a planned vacation to meet family and friends, booking classes for the upcoming summer vacations.
The world, as usual, was beset with action and drama – through the lens of sensational news that filters into our lives everyday. The theatrics of upcoming US Elections . A mysterious epidemic unraveling in an industrial hub of China.
In fact, it was exactly a month ago when we were spectators to a new virus unfolding in China. News like this is not novel and has happened in the past. There have been disease outbreaks in other countries, and here in our protected confines – we have usually viewed them as empathetic and horrified spectators. In spite of all the empathy , the epidemics are still happening in another corner of the planet. You realize the impact it has had in the part of the world where it wreaked havoc, but life goes on. They are vignettes on a mobile or TV screen, but they do not come knocking on your doors.
That was about to change very fast.
I woke up one fine March morning, getting on office calls and business as usual meetings – until I looked out and saw empty streets. A chopper hovering over in the sky. A surreal scene out of a war movie.
The headlines screamed in distress and my day punctuated with news that demonstrated increasing intensity of alarm. The Covid-19 virus ( it now had a brand new name ) that was circulating far away had broken through our collectively false sense of security and permeated our daily lives.
First, it was advisory to stay inside, and then slowly the tone hardened and became more urgent. A few days out, the county enforced a ‘shelter in place’, which instructs residents to stay at home unless it is an absolute emergency. The gradual eroding of the politeness of the message matched with the increasing shock and alarm. Friends and family were sharing unnerved messages, the anxiety laying bare in the words.
My news feed became a source of increased unease . Gun sales had skyrocketed. Price gouging and black marketers had created a shortage of sanitizers. Social liberties would be curtailed. Schools and libraries would be closed. Life as we know it would come to a pause.
As a modern society, we are not used to existential and mortal threats. We cannot imagine a scenario when we would not be able to get the best in class medical treatment when needed, or that our lives would be subject to war like protocols and choices . Especially in the West, with our deeply individualistic lives where we are so used to being in control of what we do.
When the epidemic broke, it was one country which was at the epicenter and struggling to control the outbreak. Very soon, the mayhem spread across the world , emphasizing how closely are all in this together. When the number of cases were doubling in a matter of days, this new phenomena was like a war but with no visible enemy.
This is a turning moment for us. But it also affords us to learn from what we have seen so far. As humans, we have a Connected Destiny.
There are slow existential threats like climate change which are hard to fathom and would have a visible impact on a timeline that counts in decades. Nevertheless, as the current events have shown us – we are not invincible. Rare, extreme impact events like these can indeed happen, and shut down our normal lives within days.
We are all in this together, so the sooner we get onboard and accept our Connected Destiny – the better it would be for our collective future.
How would you live your Life if you knew exactly when you were going to Die ?
Turns out – the decisions we make on how we live our lives depend deeply on our subconscious beliefs on when we would die. If you believe that you were going to live for very long , then a lot of your efforts would be invested in saving for those far off days. On the contrary, if you knew you were going to die soon, you would live life on the edge, making every moment count.
Fortunately for most of us, we don’t really know what is going to happen to us in the future, except uninformed guesses. In this bestselling book ‘The Immortalists’ the author unravels the scenario of four adolescent siblings who inadvertently chance on a traveling psychic. The psychic tells them the exact dates when each of them is going to die. And that sets off a fateful arc in each of their lives as they choose their life’s trajectory.
The author develops her characters in phases, she first talks about the one who was foretold to live shortest, who runs away from home to indulge his days to the fullest in a liberal San Francisco . The story snakes through the San Francisco downtown , with an odd familiarity for me as I could relate to the names of the streets and landmarks . You watch in horror as the first prophecy comes true – and then wait in dread as the dates of reckoning for the other siblings draw closer.
And if you thought that this is a book on magic, you will be surprised. This is a book about choices, consequences and the power of words.
The author takes an uncomfortable topic and weaves an engrossing tale around it. The learning there is, we know that choices drive consequences. But have you ever wondered about how consequences can drive our choices?. Over here, the consequence in question is the ultimate one – how long are you doing to live ? And then, there is the domino impact of choices . In the words of the author:
Here’s what happens: you make choices, and then they make choices. Your choices make choices.
Another powerful message is “ words have wings”. Perhaps most pertinent at a time when as humans, we are bombarded with a deluge of messages online – many of them half truths and lies. It was not the prophecy of the fortune teller, but the impact of her words on the impressionable minds of the children which led to their eventual death.
Words are powerful. They weasel under door crevices and through keyholes. They hook into individuals and worm through generations.
I started this book on a Saturday night and read it through a weekend punctuated with the shrill undertones of shutdowns in the middle of a global pandemic . If you are looking for a thoughtful read in the times of social distancing – here is a good one to try out.
It was a lunch outing with old school friends – we were talking about the nature of work in our respective organizations. And the conversation swirled to how our approaches to problem solving and the rules of engagement differ across Product and Consulting firms.
If you’ve been in a Product company, you work on data which is generated by your own customers. You know the exact parameters of the problem you are solving , and what you need to do is specialize – dig deeper and deeper into the depths of the problem space you own to become a specialist in your area .
At a Consulting firm, you are valued for the exact opposite skill. Consultants are invited to bring in an external perspective of what is best in the Industry, work with a dizzying variation problems and data available. The width of what you bring in – along with fresh ideas is what makes Consultants attractive.
Of course, these boundaries were not hard divisions. It was more a generalization of what we’ve seen in our respective careers.
This discussion on the nature of our work, and its associated trappings triggered me to think about what really is the best way to live your careers and professional life. Is it better to be a specialist who burrows into the deep details of any problem space and lingers with it for years? Or are you better off as a generalist who dabbles in multiple areas and then perhaps picks up one that is most interesting for her at that time?.
As expected, wondering at this topic was not unique to me – The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “the Fox knows many things, but the Hedgehog knows one big thing.”.
I liked his analogy here, very visual and apt for my frame of mind at this time. So, the deep question is – Is it better to be a Fox or a Hedgehog ?
And I think the answer really depends not just on what you want to do , but also on where you want to be.
Specialists get to go deep into any problem area and stick to it for long periods of time. They spend time to understand the nitty grit-ties of it, and are very comfortable with details. This helps them develop as experts in their own field, but it can also make them unaware of dimensions outside their field of view. If you have a relatively fixed worldview – you risk getting blindsided by uncertainty, and when faced with problems you have not seen before.
Generalists are the “jack of all trades”. They understand the multiplicity of strategies for different problems, are comfortable with uncertainties and nuance and can navigate varied problem spaces. But they also understand their limitations. When stumbling on a question that requires nth order of details, they consult a specialist in those cases.
Being a Hedgehog is great, when you have found something you have a passion for , it makes you good money, and you are also excellent at it. Making the commitment to do something for a long period of time does not risk stagnation.
Being a Fox works when you want to constantly challenge yourself with something new, leveraging connections from what you’ve learnt in the past to be comfortable with uncertainty. What you bring to the table is the approach to solving fuzzy problems, an appreciation of nuance and the ability to connect diverse problems.
For the benefit of full disclosure – I am quite a Fox myself. I have worked across multiple industries and problem statements. In fact, my most fulfilling assignments have been ones where I have solved new problems in diverse industries. Which invites the contrarian thought – What could one be missing as a Fox ?
It would be easy to say – A Fox can become a Hedgehog, but how easy is it for a Hedgehog to become a Fox ?
But the real world is complex. Width is not enough – you need depth for excellence. And you do not necessarily need to choose sides. Both these approaches to problem solving need not be mutually exclusive. Pick one sliver and specialize in it.
Be a Fox for many things , and a Hedgehog for one thing!