Sunday, January 15, 2012

Questions, Labels, Binaries & Greys

Certain questions constantly swirl.... What constitutes a balanced life? How do you measure success? Do fame and wealth signal that 'you have it made'? How do you explore spirituality in the realm of your daily life, and how do you grow? And if these are not enough, the fact that you go to work every day forces you to confront questions of a different kind. What defines a 'good' manager'? At what times do you - as an employee - look at yourself in the mirror and say 'job well done'? What does leadership mean to you and to those who look up to you?

Life goes through conversations around these – and several other. Some happen within our circle of family, friends and co-workers. But most happen within us. We contemplate, analyze, decide, test, learn, and adapt. This is a never ending cycle - one that peels through layer after layer of introspection. What we learn, imbibe and reflect in such moments defines our identity. And our way forward.

We are a binary generation. We like answers to be a Yes or No. Take investments or retirement planning, a topic we instinctively run away from. We consider the person who gives us a quick one-hour dump for life's investment planning as a godsend. If you do this, it will help. If you don't, you will face consequences. Binaries distill our choices. This or That. Easy.

But not all situations, and answers, are binary. They fall into what I call the 'shades of grey' variety. The more we are uncomfortable with these, the more they seem to target us. The discomfort comes not just from the multiplicity of choice, but also from the labels that would define us based on the decisions we will eventually make. For instance, what do we call a person at work who refuses to take that plum promotion-inducing overseas promotion? A person with a lack of drive, maybe? But what if it was not taken up since (s)he did not want to uproot the family or affect the kids' education? Does that now make the person 'grounded' or 'balanced'? Which label will now apply?

I was reading the excellent Steve Jobs recently. He must be complimented for giving Walter Isaacson a full rein for capturing his life and work. The book portrays him as a genius who possessed great intuition and was a perfectionist. He was also inspiring and built an A team. He was known to give consumers unbounded joy when they came across his products. The book says that a century from now, he would be heralded as one of the greats of the 21st century. But – yes, there is a but – the book also shows his other side. He was known to be wildly temperamental. He could make people feel small and bring them to tears. He displayed anger, caused hurt & created fear at work. He also acknowledges that he could not spend as much time with his family as he would have liked.

So in the context of those questions at the opening of the blog, where would Steve Jobs be on balance, success, fame, wealth, leadership, spiritualism et all??? More importantly, should any label apply?

The McKinsey Award winner for the best article of 2010 in the Harvard Business Review was Clayton Christensen's How Will You Measure Your Life?. (Note: His book The Innovator's Dilemma is featured in multiple Top 25 business book lists of all time.) In this article, he talks about defining life's purpose, allocating resources to reinforce this purpose, the importance of humility and creating an enduring source of happiness. And concludes that we must think about the metric by which our life will be judged. (Incidentally, this idea was the inspiration behind my 'Think Think Think' lesson in an earlier blog.) 

This is where we humans falter. We forget that while life is a concoction of questions, labels, binaries and shades, there actually is a sequence and priority. We love simplicity, but by forgetting priorities, we get caught up in a swirl of confusion.
Only one label matters. To judge oneself (and be judged) as having lived a successful life. And success must only be measured in terms of having led a life of purpose (and not based on fame or money). Questions that life throws at us – and the answers we derive – must only reinforce this objective. Whether a situation is binary or grey is immaterial. Nor those other labels. 

Sounds easy.... but being human, this is where we get all mixed up....


Kavita Narasimhan said...

Here’s what comes to my mind – mostly based on your comments (our previous, related conversation) that got me thinking:

Some aspects, decisions and visions in life seem grey. Whereas, on other days, either the same decision or any other resolution and decree seems clearly perceptible to the mind. This, I think is mostly based on how the mind generally feels, at that time. While certain ‘values’ are absolute to an individual at any given time; some other ambiguous pronouncements take time to clarify themselves in the mind.

The mind is therefore the variable factor. Should the mind be constant, decisions will be clear and unwavering. The quality and diversity in thought is therefore dependant on how well one has eaten, if one had a nice day or week, if one had any major arguments with significant people in their lives, fatigue, work pressure, queuing up for tasks beyond one’s control, etc etc. Even small things matter.

See and observe that within yourself – there are days when right and wrong seems easy and some other days when everything is a shade of grey. On those days, the mind works excessively to make decisions that might otherwise be simple.

Arun Kumar said...

Thanks Kavita, as always, for an insightful point of view. And I completely agree that there are moments when the mind is clear, and others when it is not. And that is why I reinforce the sense of purpose in the post. After all, when there is a compass that is aligned to the purpose, the situations around binary and grey may not matter as much.