Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

It's one of those books that you read and want to discuss with someone to try to understand better.  I'm writing about it instead in the hope that writing about it will help me understand the message better.

A year ago I quit my job to "follow my dream" of becoming an entrepreneur.  It's been an exhilarating yet tough journey.  In one of the startup blogs I read it mentioned (or I interpreted it to suggest) that it is important to enjoy the journey of entrepreneurship rather than focus on the end goal as written in the book The Alchemist.  Hence I decided to read it as we're going through a rough patch and I wanted some inspiration on how to tackle this phase.

I enjoyed the book but kept feeling that I might be missing the point or not fully getting what Paulo Coelho was trying to say.  My mom loves the book and has made my brother and sister both read it.  She says there's learning to be had in every sentence!

So I've listed below some of the learnings I can apply right now (spoiler alert: if you haven't read the book then don't read the below):
  1. Enjoy the journey: this is what I was looking for in the book.  Not obvious from reading it so I had to think about this one.  The shepherd learnt many things and had many new experiences on his quest to find the treasure.  He met many hardships on the way but came out stronger from them.  In the end the treasure was where he had started.  But would he have become what he was if he had found the treasure without making the journey?  No!  Hence the journey is as important (if not more important) as the end goal.
  2. Follow your dreams: it's really difficult to actually quit what you're doing right now and take the step towards following your dream.  I should know - it took me 6 years to finally leave eBay and start my entrepreneurship journey.  I was comfortable with a salary, was actually enjoying working at eBay and was constantly discouraged by people around me.  You also are afraid of what others will say (your family, friends etc who have always preferred security and are all professional).  In the end once I did it I had a lot of support from everyone.  Similarly for the Shepherd, he chose to give up more settled ways of life and constantly make changes to achieve his dream.
  3. Don't judge yourselves by what others thing is right: related to the point above, it's very difficult to take a path that is different from what everyone before you (your parents) have take and from what your peer (friends, coworkers) are doing.  The Baker who had a dream to travel didn't because he was comfortable and had the respect of everyone.  
  4. If you want something badly the entire universe will conspire to make it happen for you: this is true for me so far.  I needed a role model to help me make the jump from corporate life to startup world.  At the right time I found a mentor who was starting his second company; I worked with him in the initial phases and that gave me confidence that I could do so myself.  Similarly the Shepherd kept finding encouragement and support e.g. in shape of the King, the Alchemist.
  5. Love will encourage you to follow your dreams not discourage you: this is something I've experienced first hand.  Ashish was always encouraging and believes more in me than I do myself.  He also pushes me to think/dream bigger
  6. Be open to new experiences: This seems to be recurrent theme throughout the book.  The Shepherd is presenting with many new situations and he immerses himself with full enthusiasm in each case - the glass shop, the oasis etc.  We tend to inherently resist anything new (especially if the source comes from somewhere else).  I'm not sure how well I fare on this one - might be a blind spot but I feel I am generally up for new experiences.
  7. Take your time getting there: Related to the first one; don't rush to the goal.  If the Shepherd's didn't take the time to spend time on many detours he wouldn't have collected as much wealth as he did which allowed him to go further and gave him a buffer.  This is definitely something I can work on better as I usually rush through things to go faster.
  8. Pause, reflect: The Shepherd takes time at or before each new endeavour to reflect.  Again something I can work on as it will help deepen the learning and improve next steps.  Hopefully my starting to write again will help with this step.
  9. Trust your instincts: The Shepherd is always in tune with his instincts.  He is one with The Force of the world.  I sometimes feel that I've got a good sixth sense but I'm not always sure what it's telling me and how to act.  This one probably becomes harder as you grow older.  One for me to work on.
  10. Hardships: For any goal worth striving for there will be hardships on the way.  The Shepherd got robbed twice and beaten up and he continued.  This is one of the most important points.  In startup language, there are many death valleys to be faced.  The trick is to take them in your stride and continue.
  11. Perseverance - Don't give up too quickly.  Again this is one that I have to watch out for.  Already I have thought about quitting at various points in my entrepreneurial journey.  I love the story told here about the miner who had just one more stone to turn.  It's personally very inspirational for me to keep going.
  12. Achieving your destiny:  This is what it's all about.  Why are we doing any of the above.  As Paulo Coelho states: a metal will keep being a metal.  But when mankind moulds it into something useful it has achieved its destiny.  Similarly that what we are striving for.  We want to become what we were meant to be and to do.  It's difficult to figure out what that is.  If we have even a small inkling of what it might be we have to give it our everything to try and achieve it.  I guess that's what will bring us happiness!
A lot to take away from the book and tonnes that is relevant for my current situation as a struggling entrepreneur.  There are many things I struggled with in the book.  Things I missed or still have open questions about; such as: 
  1. Should he have been more aware of what's near him?  That way he wouldn't have missed the treasure next to him.  Or I guess the whole point of the book is that he makes the journey and is a better person for it?
  2. Should we really listen to heart despite its failings?  The Shepherd does mention the heart being afraid which is so true.  In Hindu scriptures it's written that we should actually conquer the heart with our mind.  Yes my heart did desire that I become an entrepreneur but on the journey my heart is the anxious one...
  3. Should we look out for and listen to omens.  Aren't we just going to see in the signs only what we want to see?
  4. The entire episode around The Shepherd trying to become wind and talking to the wind, the sun etc was a little lost on me.  I'm not sure I got what I was supposed to from it.
So I look forward to discussing the book with someone to understand it fully.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Delhi by Khushwant Singh

As I mentioned in my previous post, 2 states revived my interest in fiction, particularly Indian fiction. So as soon as I finished that book I needed to get more books to read. I couldn't take my 3 month old baby to a proper book store that would take a 30 mins drive to get to; so I went to a used book store in Kamla Nagar that I used to frequent as a kid. I didn't have any recommendations so picked up a few books randomly. One of them was Delhi by Khushwant Singh. When I got home I pulled up lists of best Indian fiction books and this book was one of them. Hence I decided to read it first.

It started out well and was quite a page turner. However I soon realized that it was part fiction and part history of Delhi. It took me some time to get used to the format of randomly switching back and forth between accounts of Delhi's history and the fictional story of the protagonist. By the end of 3/4th of the novel I started enjoying the stories. Perhaps because the more recent events were more familiar to me. The issue I had with the book was that it touched upon huge events very briefly and found myself constantly going to the internet to read about the people that were referred to in the book. It was hard to really learn about the events just from the book.

Nonetheless, I did learn quite a bit of history from the book that I wasn't familiar with. In fact the only history I knew before this was from history lessons in school and the odd non fiction book I read (the best one being Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre). It was eye opening to read the book and how violent our history has been. It made me realize how ancient the clash between Hindus & Muslims is and the number of times they have massacred each other was astounding. The author did focus primarily on sex and violence though so was a pretty biased view.

All in all, not really the lightweight fiction I was looking forward to at that time. Neither is it a proper non fiction that could provide good insight into Delhi's history. Would need some supplementary reading to understand the history. Maybe more enjoyable for someone who is already familiar with all the events accounted in the book as it gives a different twist to them.

2 states by Chetan Bhagat

In the 4th month of my maternity I went to Delhi. One night was when I was bored I picked up this book. I must have been reading fiction after at least 3 years. I was completely hooked and didn't sleep all night -- just couldn't put the book down. Not sure if it was me being bored, unable to sleep or not having read fiction in a while, or maybe the book was just that good. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I have to admit that I do enjoy Chetan Bhagat's humour, I guess being married to an IITian has something to do with it. Just what I needed for this time, kept me completely entertained, easy to read even while feeding my baby.

I've had an interstate marriage as well but didn't relate much to the cultural differences described in the book. However, I think every married couple would relate to the histrionics of in laws described in the book. For example, not wanting your own son/daughter to do any work in lieu of the daughter or son in law.

I didn't learn much new from this book as I would from non fiction except a bit about South Indian culture (which perhaps was very stereotyped). However, this book revived my interest in fiction, especially Indian fiction and bought quite a few Indian fiction books to last me through my maternity leave.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Why love matters

I picked up the book 'Why Love Matters' expecting more insights into parenting concepts. The book's cover says that it's essential reading for parents. However I was quite disappointed as the book doesn't really provide any learnings for normal parents.

The first few chapters about brain development and how it is affected by parenting is interesting. However, most of the book talks about the life long impact of ill parenting on children. As is written in the book -- any adult with reasonable sensitivity will be able to provide the right care for their child. Someone who is investing time to read this book is most likely a normal parent who will naturally provide the right emotional support.

I would recommend reading 'What every parent needs to know' which has the same concept explained more concisely and is more relevant or 'What's Going on in There' which has a lot more details about brain development.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I didn't quite enjoy the first 100 pages of the book. I was really interested in reading RD's views on God and the first 100 pages were just refuting others' rationale for existence of God.

However, when he started his own arguments for why God doesn't exist and even more interestingly, why religion is so prevalent in all socieities, I couldn't put the book down. I didn't agree with all of logic 100%. For example, the argument that God doesn't exist because it's highly improbably statistically. Humans existence, as he mentions, is highly improbable but we still do exist.

My favourite parts were

1. Rationale for religion's existence as a by product of evolution,
2. The explanation for why religion is so wide spread
3. How we would be moral with or without religion

The dangers of religion was particularly eye opening for me.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Real World Economics

It's the 3rd week of my MBA program at INSEAD. One thing I am enjoying a lot, besides the huge parties, is the optional reading material of the courses. These readings are mostly applications of what we are taught in class to real world situations. One such reading was an article The $100 Terrorist Insurance Plan for our Economics class. The reading was given in relation to our class on Supply, Demand and Markets. The article suggests a solution to the screening done during the security check by airlines. There is a demand for security checks and people are willing to pay for it. So the targeted passengers should be compensated for the trouble. Equipped with the knowledge worth 5 sessions of Economics, I find the solution pretty neat.

It's a shame that I hardly have time to read the optional cases which are the most fun part of the courses.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Street harassment

When I went back to Delhi in the summer of 2005 a fleeting thought passed my mind while packing my clothes – maybe I shouldn’t pack my tank tops and skirts. I had been living alone for 6 years in San Francisco, wearing whatever I felt like, going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And it was going to really hot in Delhi. I was confident that I could tackle anything that came my way.

In Delhi, I was warned against wearing shorts to the gym so I wore my track pants the first day. I almost passed out from the heat while working out and resolved to wear my shorts the next day onwards. I wasn’t about to let fear of being harassed interfere with something as mundane as a good workout. I came up with a theory that if I appeared confident and unafraid, no one would harass me. I glared at any men who came too close and sure enough nobody harassed me.

This gave me the confidence to venture out alone to Connaught Place. I wore a knee length skirt, hailed an auto rickshaw and made my way to meet my friends in CP. On my way there I noticed a man on a motorcycle driving beside me and staring. I didn’t give it much thought and just looked away. When I got off the man also got off his bike and accosted me. He asked me for my number. I was taken aback but thought he was on of those “I would like to be friends with you” guys. I walked in another direction but he wouldn’t go away. I was zigzagging through cars trying to get away. He shouted at me “What do you think you are? I know exactly what you do!” I was too confused to react. What did that guy mean? What give him any indication of “What I am?” I looked around at people thinking if they would protect me if he tried anything funny. Fortunately I spotted my friend and walked towards her. As I was telling her about the incident the man disappeared. She told me that while she was waiting for me in front of the Wimpy’s an uncle-ji tried to feel her up. She even pointed him out while we walked away.

On my way back I kept watching out for any motorcycle that stayed with us for more than a couple of miles. Nothing had changed since I was a fourteen year old girl afraid to walk home from my bus stop after school. Everyday in the bus, as we neared my bus stop, I would start dreading the walk home. A nearby school ended at the same time and a group of school boys would harass the girls passing by. They would shout obscenities and throw stones at my feet. I used to look forward to examination days when I got home earlier and didn’t have to pass by that group of boys. I was jealous of my cousins who had an elder brother who walked the same route with them. He once chased a boy who teased his sister and beat him up. I was jealous of my twin brother and sister who also walked together. I tried to get my mother to pick me up from my bus stop but didn’t know how to explain the mental turmoil I went through everyday. One day on my way back, after I had passed the group of school boys, I turned a corner, and a man turned towards me and flashed me. That day onwards I started taking a longer route home just so I wouldn’t have to pass that corner again.

When I turned eighteen I was ecstatic to start learning to drive. I could now drive and never have to walk or take auto rickshaws or the most feared – DTC Buses. The joy didn’t last long when my driving instructor surreptitiously started touching my breasts while changing gears or turning the wheel. I wasn’t sure how to tell my parents that I didn’t want to learn driving from that instructor. I asked my dad to teach me driving but got into a small accident. I had to continue my lessons with the driving instructor.

Now when I think of these incidents I can’t imagine why I didn’t take action against this kind of harassment. But as a girl in my early teens I lacked the confidence and maturity to deal with these incidents. I was too embarrassed to discuss any of this with my parents. I just learnt to go to any length to avoid a group of boys loitering on the streets or to make up excuses about why I need my grandmother or cousin to be in the car with me while I learnt to drive.

When male friends from Delhi narrate stories of eating paranthas at 1 am on the roadside or playing holi with friends on the streets, I am amazed. These are luxuries that I could never afford. They are amazed when I tell them that I only traveled in a bus once. They automatically attribute it to me being a rich spoiled brat and I prefer not to tell them the real reason. I would rather repress the thoughts of one of the worst experiences of my lives.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized my sister could have been during her teen years in Delhi. After having lived in the US for two years when she had an opportunity to visit Delhi, she refused. She desperately wanted to meet our family but was too scared to go back. I convinced her to go but she fretted for days leading up to the trip.

I thought I would be able to deal with such harassment as a mature woman now. I was not a scared teenager anymore. However, in Bangalore on a trip with my parents, when a man started running his hand up and down my leg, I could do nothing. If I told my parents I knew my dad would get in a fight with him. I didn’t want him to get hurt. I just kept scooting closer and closer to my sister till she asked me what the matter was. She switched seats with me since she was wearing jeans and stomped on his hand. After all he couldn’t complain either.

I once started researching Sexual Harassment in India to write a paper for a class called “Women, Minorities and Law.” During that research I found out that “Eve teasing” is a termed coined and used only in India. I never wrote that paper, it was too painful. I sometimes day dream that incidents of street harassment would air on television and men would be forced to face the guilt. They would be made aware of the trauma they cause. I’m not sure when that day would come but Blank Noise is definitely a step in the right direction.

Changing Nationalities

I was flipping through the latest issue of Newsweek at home today when an article caught my eye. It read "If you look at two recent events, you might well conclude that the Chinese are a lot smarter at handling the US than Indians are at handling them." Wait, that doesn't make any sense. I read the line again; it actually said "If you look at two recent events, you might well conclude that the Chinese are a lot smarter at handling the US than we are at handling them." I had read the "we" as "Indians." It is strange that I made that translation automatically since I was in the US, reading an American magazine and I recently became an American citizen.

I had mixed feelings the day I took the oath - I could now visit South American countries without getting a visa, but I would have to get a visa to go to India. It was disturbing to sign a document saying that I would be willing to bear arms for the US. When I reached my office that day, I tried to explain my confused feelings to a sympathetic co-worker. She simply remarked - "well you look the same and you talk the same, nothing has changed." And really what has changed?

To me Independence Day still means August 15th and "we" is still Indians. If anything, living amongst Americans has made me more aware of how I am different from them. How I nod my head from side to side in affirmative sometimes instead of up and down, how it makes me uncomfortable to see someone step on a book or how much I enjoy eating with my hands. Living outside of India has sensitized me to the behavior that so distinctly "Indian". For example, in Bombay when I bought an ice cone from an old man at the beach he felt it his duty to tell me where to sit so that I was as far as possible from a group of young men lurking near by. Had I never left India, I wouldn't have appreciated the sentiment behind his insistence on where I sit. In Bangalore when a man selling flowers naturally started arranging them in my sister's hair, the act seemed especially endearing when I compared it to the man in Berkeley who snapped at her for accidentally brushing her hair against his face.

Undeniably, having spent more than half of my life in America and Britain, I do have western influences. My work ethics are that of a professional in the Silicon Valley and my ambitions are inspired by American organizations. As I learn more about the American culture and compare it to my own, I wonder if my years in America are making me more American, less Indian or more American and even more Indian.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Discussion on NPR about Untouchables

There was a good program on NPR about the Caste System in India. The guest was Narendra Jadhav, born in a sub class, who is the chief economist of the RBI. I learnt through this program that Dr. Ambedkar played a bigger role in the movement to eradicate the class system than Mahatma Gandhi did. The Q&A session was very interesting; the major controversy being about the reservation in colleges. Some people from the Brahmin class argued that the reservation was unfair.

One point raised against the reservation seems to be that privileged people from the lower castes exploit the system to gain admission. A question was brought up asking Jadhav if his daughter took advantage of the reservation. He said that she didn't and he himself didn't do so himself after his education. It is true that many people from SC/ST with equal opportunities as others from different classes do get through due to the reservation, but it cannot be removed just yet. As one caller suggested, the solution is to probably base the system on both social and economic class.

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