Archives for September 2007

What is serendipity?

(This was a question asked by someone on LinkedIn, have posted my response below)

It was a dusty, moth-eaten fragment of a book. Its papers crumbled at the touch, one had to handle it like when holding a butterfly. I was fascinated by the occasional line drawings in its pages, the content was incomprehensible to my 11year old brain. I used to study in a school that was pathetic to say the least, I just had no clue.

Another 8 years or so later the book miraculously survived being thrown out as junk and I re-discovered it. It turned out to be the complete works of Lord Byron, or at least what was left of the complete works. And I read it end to end, thrice..without a break. The language, the thought and the expressiveness was like a miracle to me. Every turn of phrase was like a lightning that flashed across the ignorance of my mind and burnt itself within me. I have been a very different person since.

I have read lots more, learned that Byron is not the master of subtlety and been through much to be where I am now. But the presence and eventual discovery of that book has to be an act of providence, there is no other rational explanation that I can give myself. This to me is serendipity.

It is the realization that there is a vaster intelligence that guides our lives. To know that all the byways we have taken in the past had purpose, our falls, our failures included- that every little thing a limited human intelligence belittles has a purpose that exceeds its grasp. And that not all things in life are tainted by “the touch of tears”….

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Lightning Rods and Trust Elicitors

Lightning rods are one of those really simple, yet essential, feature of any building since the 19th century. They primarily attract lightning and divert them without causing harm.

This term occurred to me in a metaphorical context, in response to a handful of events that occurred in the new workplace of mine. Note that I use this term primarily for the attraction element rather than the diverting negative forces aspect.

The events I mentioned were around a handful colleagues from different teams coming up to vent out their work related “issues”. This was not a typical “my job sucks” crib that lots of people tend to do. It was more subtle and I dare say quite bleak for the colleagues.

This got me thinking on many levels- what makes people trust you to have such a conversation? What characteristics have you displayed so far to earn that trust? If you have not worked with these individuals to earn this trust, as was the case with me, what personality aspects influenced this response? Does this represent a breakdown in the official means of capturing employee moods? Can such a channel be leveraged officially?

I will provide responses to each of the questions, but wanted to learn of your experiences. Please feel free to comment or leave a trackback.

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Bhakti – 3

The sixth in the series on Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms and my understanding of it.

It was a blistering 45 degrees Celsius in that famous temple town in southern India, cradled by an arc of mountains that reflected the searing heat. One felt the upper lip burning with every exhalation of breath. I was like a cauldron into which fate had poured unpleasant ingredients. Where the traveling pilgrims saw God and his benediction I saw an unyielding Tyrant. The heat brought it to breaking point. In the middle of road, near the outskirts of the town, away from all that I loved and hoped, I was being dissected.  And it was not the first, or the last, time I felt life-sapping pain.

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Who amongst us has not known pain? It is one of the few universals that make up the human condition. Whether it is physical pain or the more destructive emotional pain, it is such an intense feeling that we almost instinctively recognize and avoid it.

To the aspirant pain is a harsh reality, more than a common man with conventional ambitions. I believe the pain one undergoes is in proportion to the quest undertaken. To gain a glimpse of the Infinite is to challenge the vast machinery of manifest existence and its rules. We pay the price to unravel every knot and to peer through every appearance.

But an Omniscient’s creation would not manifest something without purpose, pain included. Sri Aurobindo says-

I used to hate and avoid pain and resent its infliction; but now I find that had I not so suffered, I would not now possess, trained and perfected, this infinitely and multitudinously sensible capacity of delight in my mind, heart and body. God justifies himself in the end even when He has masked Himself as a bully and a tyrant.

To consider one type of experience would suffice to understand what positive changes pain can manifest. I would like to mention how my appreciation of music has changed over these troubled years. I have always listened to music, especially classical music, with a certain intensity. Have tried to perceive it with my heart since I have no formal training or knowledge of music. One of the most exhilarating experiences in my life was when I intuitively understood Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I still cannot explain it but it stands like an unseen monument within my heart, a thing of constant awe and joy!

I believe what made this possible was a re-forging of the emotional being. The old vocabulary was pulled down. The landscape within had been changed, newer pathways established. Life was not lived in the senses alone. Other worlds could enter my bleak existence. Honeyed whispers of a higher self could reach me now.

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An Indian politician denies existence of God

In the tumult that is India, a Chief-minister of a southern state, and an avowed atheist, goes on record in his official capacity denying the existence of Sri Rama, a major Avatar of the Hindu religion.

Am sure those of you who follow Indian politics are aware of the details and the character in question. Lets leave the question of whether there is a God, feel free to take your stance whatever it may be.

I am reminded of the poem by Shelly called Ozymandias, and I quote –

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
….
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Emperors, geniuses and master races have existed before us. Infinite stories of valor and beauty lie hidden in the recesses of time. History is but a fragment of an infinite past, viewed through the lenses of a race whose visibility goes past by just a paltry couple of thousand years. This politician and his cohorts would pass away too.

But some things remain. The stories that replenish, the myths that give our hearts some meaning, the brave heroes and chaste women would all live long after this race is gone.

Sri Rama, and his story, would continue to be told for as long as mankind exists, in one form or another. Same goes for Achilles or an Arjuna. Whether these characters existed or not is not the issue, says Sri Aurobindo, the issue is if these characters and what they stand for can foster the soul of humanity for the next 10,000 years of evolution. Sri Rama has lasted 2000years, even assuming he is just a literary character.

Am confident Mr. Karunanidhi will not be more than a footnote in India’s history in another 500years.

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Karma – 2

The fifth in the series on Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms and my understanding of it.

Sacrifice plays a central role in the spiritual ecology of India. The Gods are said to be fostered within us by sacrifice, they enter into communion with us by sacrifice, man rises to the stature of the Gods by sacrifice…even the act of creation is said to be a sacrifice on the part of the Supreme Divine, since he consents to be bound by the illusion of ignorance and rise through the infinite cycles of existence to the primal state.

But this lofty idea has been through quite some contortions, to put it mildly, in current times. Tonsuring ones head is a very popular ‘sacrifice’ down in southern India, giving up non-vegetarian food or certain days, fasting on certain days etc. All of them have one thing in common, whatever is convenient to give up is given up. Even when this is not the case, say giving up non-vegetarian food, it often benefits the doer, rather than “fostering the gods within”.

And now the Guru clears the cobwebs and defines how sacrifice aught to be.

Limit not sacrifice to the giving up of earthly goods or the denial of some desires and yearnings, but let every thought and every work and every enjoyment be an offering to God within thee. Let thy steps walk in thy Lord, let thy sleep and waking be a sacrifice to Krishna.

The scope of sacrifice is very clearly defined and needs no further explanation. But the interesting point to note is to whom the sacrifice should be offered, “..to God within thee”. Very Advaitic in its formulation and even impersonal. But the very next line clears up the lofty impersonality with the call to found all our acts, waking and sleeping within Krishna, the Beloved of the aspiring soul.

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Karma – 1

The fourth in the series on Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms and my understanding of it.

Each of us carries a world within. The limits of this world is circumscribed by the extent of our knowledge. The greater the knowledge, the richer the world within. But knowledge is often confused with mere awareness of something. To know the words, even a precise pronunciation perhaps, say like the priest who mouths the mystic words in front of a Deity, is considered enough ‘knowledge’.

But knowledge that does not find its way into action has not served its function. It is as harmful as action that does not have enough knowledge behind it.

What is the use of only knowing? I say to thee, Act and be, for therefore God sent thee into this human body.

Ancient Indian tradition gave its highest regard to the spiritual man; the Rishi set the rhythm of its life. The Sage was seen as the fount of knowledge that helped unravel the mystery of life. Every aspect of its life- arts and science and everything in between was permeated with a spiritual air. The external was enriched by the intuitions within.

We lost our path along the way. We looked up to the Sanyasi, or the ascetic; someone who stood aloof, within the world yet above it.  The Rishi who cavorted with life, even as men, and yet in communion with the highest Divine, was a myth now. The ideal of a Buddha, or a Shankara was nearest to the memory of the race. Knowledge was still cherished, we learnt mantras by the thousands, the brahmin who spouted the mantras was still venerated but we as a race lost the will to live.

A life of contemplation and rumination is all well but it is action that effectuates the thought, that manifests what was just a hazy vibration in the mind. An entire race besotted by the Purusha and the closest route to Him is not the purpose of the human body Sri Aurobindo seems to clarify, to act was our chief mandate.

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Commandments of Distributed Team Productivity

I had answered a question on LinkedIn recently on how to maximize productivity of offshore and remote teams. I have posted my answer to that question below. Would love you hear your thoughts on what else needs to be in here.

– First is to recruit the right set of people. Or assess via tasks where their true skill lies. It helps to have a face to face contact once at the beginning of the project, but not always essential.

– Establish clear cut goals, with definite responsibilities to each team member.

– Do not delegate to an offshore or on-site resource until you are clear as to their commitment and skills.

– Build an environment of trust and openness.

– Set standards of deliverables, not by paying lip service but by actually doing and highlighting what you need from each member.

– Deal with complacency firmly and openly.

– Have a common framework of tools and processes defined and communicated. The specifics do not matter. Adhere to these standards rigorously without exceptions.

– Cultivate passion for the goal, foster pride in what the team aspires to accomplish

– Mentor every resource, let your aim be larger than executing the project successfully

– Monitor and evaluate against plan every day. Course correction should not cost more than one calendar day.

Thoughts and Aphorisms – Jnana – 1

The third in the series where I post an aphorism of Sri Aurobindo and my understanding of it.

Nature proceeds in tiny little steps, she loves the order and regularity of her existence. All variety she has evolved over many millenniums. What seems a surfeit of possibilities was but a series of imperceptible and tardy changes at the cellular level over thousands of years. Her revolutions are often seeded and nurtured over centuries before they bloom to sound of guns and spilling of blood.

Our focus for this post is going to be nature’s instinct to preserve, to replicate, to not change or at least not significantly. Call this inertia, lack of impulse or just ignorance; this constitutes most of nature’s set of manifestations. And where would you find most abundant example of this, in which species you ask?

Its everywhere but none as systematized as in man. The first fish to stick its head out in air, the first ape to walk upright, the first ape to use a tool, the first man to fly..all of them were geniuses. And all of them were imitated and followed by their own species. But they did it out of instinct, out of an unsaid need to do that act, rather than imitating what it saw its neighbor do. We could safely say that there was no one master fish that sniffed the first breath of air. But man is a different story. He copies because he does not wish to think. He thinks to shortcut the process of creating something, he mimics, he goes through the motions..all in the hope of achieving the same result.

Genius discovers a system; average talent stereotypes it till it is shattered by fresh genius. It is dangerous for an army to be led by veterans; for on the other side God may place Napoleon.

Though the aphorism has a military example, I find it helpful to think of this as having relevance across all contexts. Most of all in evaluating where we stand. We might not be able to evaluate whether anything is the result of average talent or genius, the opinions of society not withstanding, but we can and must ask ourselves in all that we do – Are we propagating stereotypes, making the dead past live again? Are we crafting the future?

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Thoughts and Aphorisms – Bhakti – 2

The second in the series where I post an aphorism of Sri Aurobindo and my understanding of it.

Imagine this – what would every spiritual victory be without a Satan or a Mara, or the countless personifications of evil and ignorance across cultures and societies and religions. Would Christ be the same without Satan and his temptations? Without Mara would there be a Buddha?

In fact every major accomplishment becomes that way because of the impediments that come in the way. The greater the block the higher the effort and hence bigger the victory.

But it seems that we as a species, often, in spite of our best intentions, get it wrong as to the identity of the villain.

I was much plagued by Satan, until I found that it was God who was tempting me; then the anguish of him passed out of my soul for ever.

Here, Sri Aurobindo demolishes a old spiritual myth. That there is a highest evil personified, Satan, or whatever name a culture attributes to it, and it holds all responsibility of pushing back aspirants to the highest realm of existence. Of course Sri Aurobindo does not just demolish the myth out of malice or lack of understanding, he points to a higher truth, or should I say the highest truth?

Satan, evil or its ilk and their infinite manifestations are only a half-complete evolution of the possibilities of creation. It is the immanent Divine who is leaving behind each of the layers of ignorance. To not recognize this is to only possess one facet of the Divine, to place in him responsibility for virtue and none of the vices does not make him completely the Highest Divine.

It is perhaps a testament to the maturity of the eastern religions that this line of thought is even attempted. Even from the times of the Vedas and the Upanishad the notion of a transcendent, one who exceeds Space and Time, and hence all notions of morality, one who stands apart from the visible manifest Universe, the highest Self, the highest Purusha, the Purushottama of the Gita has existed. This Transcendent exceeds notions of morality, and in exceeding it contains both Good and Evil within himself.

All that exists is contained within Him. This is the “Uttama rahasya”, the highest secret, of the Gita. To not know this is to be taken by the masks that God wears upon Himself to lead an erring humanity.

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Do you Swivel baby?

Data is like a woman who refuses to yield her charms to those who woo her. It requires all the charm and seduction skills of a Don Juan DeMarco. For those of you who have seen this movie, I need to remind you of the scene where Johnny Depp walks into the restaurant and spotting a lonely pretty woman, moves to seduce her with just words and…let me just say leaves her very satisfied and very much smitten.

Not all of us can be a Don Juan. And not all analytical tools have comprehensively stormed the bastion of data interpretation and analysis. Attempts too numerous to mention have been made with no conclusive evidence of having cracked the problem. Today I came across a tool that could at least claim to have dented the data analytics problem significantly and in an affordable way.

Swivel is the site.

Swivel provides tools to chart/analyze data online and over the web. The results of the analysis can be shared, blogged and tagged. Web 2.0 goodness on structured data. At the moment it consumes data from public data sources and provides ability to upload custom data too. They have an Excel Add-in to simplify this process.

There are limitations – all data uploaded is made public(this will change with their private edition), API to do charting and leverage data sources on the fly not released etc. But I see this as something that will be be addressed over a period of time.

I already see the next generation of arm chair statisticians being groomed on this tool.

Brilliant idea and there is so much one can do with this. I shall post some suggestions and more thoughts later.