I had landed in Australia recently as a freshly minted immigrant. The excellent company I first joined got bought out in a few months, and I had moved to a large multi-national industrial manufacturer. I had a decent desk, PC and all, but a week after settling in, I needed a printer for my work. The office gave me one, but there weren’t enough power points on the partition. One of my bosses was passing by, and I called out to him (name changed), “Hi John, just a second please, I need an extension board.”. He looked down at me from his tall Aussie height and said, “So”? I didn’t understand his response at all, and after two ticks of silent internal confusion, I said, “Can someone get me an extension board for the printer”? He said irritatedly, “No. Just go down the road to Jaycar’s and get one”. I found this somewhat beneath me, a senior design engineer, and said, “I don’t think I should be doing that. Don’t we have someone who does this sort of thing”? He had taken two paces past but stopped, turned to me with an angry and incredulous look, and said loud enough for half the floor to hear, “Don’t be an @#$&. Take care of your own stuff”! Still glaring, he walked off.
I sat there, shocked and stricken. I had never been shouted at by a boss in eleven years of working, let alone been at the receiving end of any invective. To add insult to injury, I had been perceived as an arrogant numbskull. That too from a guy I knew was otherwise nice enough. The worst thing was, I totally, utterly and instantly agreed with him, the moment he said it, and it reached my brain and heart.
Most Australians are egalitarian, if not all, but for sure, I became one that day. From then on, I’ve never looked at any work as beneath me. Nor have I looked down at anyone else’s work. It has stood me in good stead for the next twenty-odd years in respecting others, even more so my juniors and blue-collar workers.
I saw the world in a new way after that. It was a personal paradigm shift – When I dropped the feeling of entitlement. Let me tell you of a couple more.
When my mind understood Quality
I was in college and we were on a family trip in the summer break to Himachal Pradesh, a Himalayan state in North India. I liked to ride and read in the back of the van, a separate section accessed from the rear. We were on a day trip to some lakes, travelling on mountain roads. The scenes were typical of high mountains, lushly covered with cedars and spruce trees, with deep river valleys, crisp air, sharp sun. I was deep in a book you may have heard of, called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. The whole book was like an epiphany, and I was engrossed in it. I reached the following passage:
“What I’m talking about here in motorcycle maintenance is “just fixing,” in which the idea of a duality of self and object doesn’t dominate one’s consciousness. When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to “care” about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing. When one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.”
I felt a thrill down my spine. Time slowed down. So this is quality! It seems so obvious once it is said. But it has to be said. Robert Pirsig said it, bless his soul. I suppose I was not a slouch, but since then, I have been aware every day of the idea of quality. For work, writing, speech, thinking, and home, I try to care as much as possible. Can you doubt it has made me happier and better?
When I lost my awe of titles
A few years ago, I became quite convinced of the merits of a new type of software architecture. I felt it was an excellent thing for any enterprise that had suitable applications to make good use of its speed, quality and economy. I worked out where it should be applied, what it would take and the business case. I started pitching it to a large client and in my company, advocating it to pretty senior folk on all sides. In my eyes, it would be a winner for everyone.
You may feel for me when I tell you that I found it shockingly hard going for entirely the wrong reasons. What seemed obvious to me was turned down variously out of group insecurities, inter-departmental conflicts, aversion to new things, inability to pay attention and a shortfall of vision. I brought in my architecture superiors to champion it, but they couldn’t make any inroads either. I was expecting so much from all the high-ranking leaders. But man, it was like banging my head on walls.
One day I was having a corridor chat with one of my senior leaders. He was half listening to yet another angle from me on the topic. As I was talking, there was a moment when a thought layer separated in my mind, and I observed I was comprehensively out-thinking a man with a big title in my field. I was seeing more than him, at least on this crucial idea. Something must have changed in the way I was speaking because a few seconds later a far-away look came into his eyes and he said he would try to push it through. I don’t know if I convinced him, he decided to trust me anyway or just gave in, but I credit him with hearing and acting.
The project happened, and it lived up to its promise to wide acclaim. But it is that private interlude that changed me. There are reasons your bosses are your bosses. But it is the first time when you know for sure that you have out-thought a heap of them that you realise that you have attained a new level. I thought back wryly to all the times I had been confident of something but had retreated out of deference to positions and hierarchy. I always was a bit of an iconoclast, but it took me back to the basics – respect for the true worth, not the title. Objectively, I delivered much. I was not play-acting, and I should know that.
That day took two weights off my shoulders. One was of second-guessing myself for the wrong reasons. The other was in losing much of my hankering after titles that did not necessarily equate to quality. I felt light, like I could fly. By internally dismissing positions and privately promoting the valuable me, I felt a new sense of freedom, peace and self-worth. It has helped me get closer to the best me for everyone.
Some of you may believe that we develop gradually in our lives. Perhaps it is true, but I think we also have something akin to the spontaneous mutations of evolution that make us fitter. Many of you would have had these mental tectonic shifts. I have had five clear ones till now and felt like sharing some of them with you. They are a facility of our nature. Given their value, how can we have more? I don’t think we can force them. And who knows which ones and how many each of us needs. But I have felt that besides the passage of time, the more I widen my learning, the more things I try to do, the higher the chances of having these life-altering ‘aha moments’.
I wish some more private paradigm shifts for you and me.
Shashi on LinkedIn