Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I know a guy who fought through cancer. Now I know what you are thinking… and that you know where this is going… and I don’t blame you… stories of heroic fights against cancer have served as the source of inspiration for a lot of people, and Lance Armstrong and Steve Jobs are to be thanked for that… and I fully respect them for it… but this guy I know was not like them… he felt fear, anger, sadness, and all other emotions that we are ought to feel while being stared in our face by death… he was middle-aged, recently married, had a kid, was a freelancer, and boom! One day you go to the doctor, he runs some tests on you, and before you know it, you have a death penalty handed out to you along with a six-second sympathetic expression and a hefty bill.

I never got to ask him how he felt the moment he came to know about his predicament, but from what I do know about him, I can imagine how he felt… in one word: sad.

Sadness is such a shallow emotion in popular media. If I am a sport star getting interviewed on the TV after losing a match and I’m asked “how do you feel?” I can’t possibly reply “I feel sad.”

Why? Well if I do, the reporter would be like: “You lost the World Series and all you feel is sad? Come on buddy, give me some emotion, give me drama, and say that you want to kill that bastard who missed your pass...”

Well, is sadness not an emotion then? Well ‘sad’ has turned out to carry a loser-ly connotation to it these days. If I wear a t-shirt that says “I am sad” people will look at me like a piece of trash and offer me a cocktail of sympathy and disgust.

But anyways, that guy was definitely sad… things were looking much better for him before he was diagnosed, so it was pretty understandable. Now, what can we learn from a sad guy with cancer?

A lot!

So this guy, after knowing he had cancer tried to slow down his life. He thought, well screw all this stress, I’m not the president of  this country, all the responsibility I have is towards my family, and since I don’t even have a boss, I can’t even stick it to the man… so let’s live more slowly… let’s live fully!

Fair enough, let’s live fully… decision made… now how to do that? This guy didn’t like all these self-help books in the market… part of his job was to offer people help when they needed some ideas and encouragement, so he knew very well that all these books were just glorified junk. So he turned to meditation, yoga, spirituality and all that good stuff.

Result? Zilch. Didn’t make him feel any different, apart from giving him a backache due to a bad session one day.

But he wanted to live slowly, so he thought, well, my job is to spend time with people, talking with them about their problems… and I need to be empathetic, articulate, insightful and flatter my clients, so why not actually be all of that without any pretension. If I don’t want to flatter them, fine, I’ll just say it out loud… no point in keeping elephants in the room. Worst comes to worst I’ll lose the client and get some bad market rep. That’s OK… definitely beats cajoling hogwashers for a living!

So he paid more attention to what people said and it completely transformed his life. He started with his child, and even though it could only gargle its own saliva as a form of communication, he still paid attention to that. What he found, was astounding. He noticed that people completely change when they see you are paying attention to what they are saying. They no longer have to resort to things like “You know what I mean” or “Oh it’s nothing very important but” while communicating with you. That totally blew his mind. He would totally open up to all his clients about their strengths and pitfalls, sometimes their stupidity, and they would love it! And for a moment he thought it was because of the fact that all his clients knew he was battling with cancer and had shaved his head and stuff... but what surprised him, was that he had an hour long conversation with a new client over the phone, and that client also loved his feedback.

So I ran into him once during that phase and the first thing he told me was “You need to floss more.” I was surprised and he clearly saw that all over my face and said “when you have a salad, some leaf bits stick on your teeth and you keep trying to get them off with your tongue. It’s really irritating.”
I said thanks and moved along to attend a meeting. What was I thinking all through the meeting?
“God… I’ve had lunch with this guy maybe four times, and he noticed that, what about other people? Do they also find it irritating? What is a good way of asking that without coming across as a weirdo?”
And to be honest, “Do you think it’s irritating when I try to lick out salad bits from my teeth?” is a fairly odd question to ask!

But what that helped me realize, was that this awkward question made me think about other people’s feelings. How they feel when I do something out of habit. Maybe my parents never called me out because they thought it was fine… but what about other people? What are some of the small things they do which I find irritating? So I started carrying around a pocket notebook in which I documented every single idiosyncrasy that irritated me. About everyone. Then, I started this practice, where I would buy a blank card, write that irritating habit the person had, and give them that card on their birthdays. How many people hated my guts for doing that? 100%.

How many people thanked me a couple of weeks later? 98%

Why did they feel this way? Why did I feel this way when I was called out for my habit? Why do we all feel immediate hatred, later on followed by immense gratitude when someone gives us genuine feedback?
It all has to do with our notion of perfection. We all want to be perfect. At some stage in life we are filled with this feeling that we are perfect. It all stems from the “no child left behind” mentality. Each child is special, each one of us has special talents, we are all unique individuals… well, I think they left out the “don’t be fixated with your own uniqueness and look at other people too” part. Yes, you are unique, your naval lint has a different density than mine, your shirt sleeves always end up above your wrists, and your favorite movie which was made in 1932 post-war Romania bombed in the box office everywhere except in the island of Tonga.
Great! Awesome! I am so happy for you about that!

But is that sliver of uniqueness your real and complete identity? And I think you know where I am going with this… look at all the Vegans, Evangelical Christians, Heavy Metal fans, Apple fanboys and others who wear this one thing one their chests like war insignia. If you fought in the Vietnam War, saved the lives of three soldiers and received the purple ribbon for it, fine, brag about it as much as you can. We will still respect you because you did something heroic and compassionate which lesser humans couldn’t. But please, don’t give me all that crap just because you believe in a certain philosophy that makes you think of every person unlike you as a berated heathen.

Anyways, our perfectionist tendencies make us deeply apologetic about every flaw in us, and as evolved chimpanzees, all we can do in such a case is fight or flight. Now since fighting for perfection is an eternal struggle, and we all realize that, we generally choose the path of flight and simply ignore the imperfections by labeling them unimportant… it’s kind of like how our eyes just ignore the fact that we have a nose because it’s present in our field of view all the time and is hence redundant data… we create this image that under the special circumstances we subsist in, we are perfect enough and anyone else in these circumstances couldn’t be more perfect than us… What we don’t realize here is that we are making ourselves perfect for the world, and not for ourselves...

I think that is a really hard concept for us to wrap our heads around, and I found it fascinating how widely pervasive this bewilderment is… we never really realize that the perfection we seek is not because of a personal goal, but it’s because we want to appear perfect in other people’s eyes! In all practicality, the personal goal here is not an infinite skill set, but the admiration and acceptance of others in our society, which is essentially another trait that predates modern society to the cavemen era. It is kind of like the notion of charity… a lot of people who donate to charities do so to earn the title of a philanthropic person… it says out loud that I am not a shallow and mean person, I care about others. What this very act shows is that we are not philanthropic and charity was just a way to buy social admiration. I know that sounds amazingly offensive to a lot of people, but think of it this way… In kindergarten, does donating money exalt you a higher social status? I don’t think so… does owning the newest toy in town make you popular? Probably yes…

What I mean here, is that social donations are not a universally accepted norm for gaining a higher social status, but it’s just that in certain societies it is… just like owning a motorbike with a meat-grinder in place of the transmission is in some cults… And that’s why a lot of people donate… but how many of us actually donate because we think of the smiles and joy that will be permanently fixated on faces of the people we helped? I would say a minority. Why is that? Because a donation without any social recognition doesn’t make us perfect and socially respected, so it doesn’t really matter…

Think about this for a minute, because when you do, you will realize instinctively that the point of this whole long example is that the pursuit of perfection makes us inhuman, it kills our emotional segments and makes us apathetic to all the imperfections that make us human. Hence, feedback has so much power, because it breaks the fragile layer of perfection we cover ourselves with and strikes the core of our emotional center… and eventually makes us more compassionate because we can then see other people as more than just judgmental, two-faced bipolar creatures… we can then see them as imperfect humans like us, seeking validation like us, pursuing their ambitions and failing while at it like us, and people who are irked by little habits of others for some strange reason they are unaware about… just like us!

And that is really the magic of compassion and feedback... it spreads like wildfire through small, unselfish displays of affection. If I say that clicking your pen continuously while someone is speaking is highly distracting and pisses people off, and if I say that with a smile on my face, I bet 98% of the people will never do that again and will look around at others and feel apologetic about everyone they irked with this habit. What I’ve found is that most people will not only stop that habit, but they will also change a lot of other habits… they will ask others for feedback more often than before… and will also develop a deep urge to give profound feedback to other people. That is really how compassion ripples through, and to think of it, it all starts with one sentence filled with awkward content, enshrouded in a smile.

You might be wondering about what happened to the guy with cancer. Well, he survived and I met him during a get-together and asked him how he feels. He said “I don’t feel sad anymore.”
I asked him “Oh, so you must feel happy now?”
He said, “no, I was sad before but I am not sad now, but I am neither happy because I fear I will go back to my old stressed out life style and won’t have enough time to enjoy the small things in life.”

It was amazing how the same person, who taught me how to live fully with just one sentence, didn’t realize the importance of compassionate feedback himself. I told him: “You can completely change a person’s life just by attentively listening to them and by giving them honest feedback. Feel blessed when that happens to you, and hold on to it like you held on to dear life for the past few months, because even if you are lying in the deepest trench of depression or are being pulled apart in multiple directions by your numerous responsibilities, that single piece of feedback will set you back on the right track, and it will make you realize that beneath the branded suits and placid demeanor, lies a beating heart that longs for some compassion… and amazingly, you taught me this without even intending to do so!”

He was really surprised on hearing that, and to really drive the point home, I quoted a favorite from Calvin: “Life is full of surprises, but never when you need one…”
I don’t think he quite understood what I meant by that, but I do hope that you all do…

Oh and that 2% who never thanked me for my feedback, were some unfamiliar girls on facebook who unfriended me after I wrote “Your status messages are too whiny” on their wall for their birthday. But I still do believe that in some part of cyberspace, some people are having a happier day because a girl on their news feed is not posting about how much she hates her life and everyone in it for not commenting on her new profile picture.


Bnits said...


Lokesh said...


Anonymous said...

can we have a TLDR version?