Count #MeOut of the debate

Much of how we live is dictated by narratives amplified by those perceived as influencers. It’s time to shut the noise out and seek our own individual narratives

Charles Assisi

[By Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver

I’m not sure now where that question first came to me. But it was staring at me while listening in to an interview with Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and academic based in Toronto on the British television station Channel 4 with their star anchor Cathy Newman.

The reason he was on her show is that his most recent book, 12 Rules for Life, was launched to much debate earlier this year. One of the themes he tackles is what many men feel deep down but are afraid to articulate in as many words: That men and women are different. Thinking of them as equals is silly.

Newman thought it appropriate this assertion be questioned. She did it in her way. Her tone was aggressive. Among the issues she raised was why the disparity in pay exists between both genders. Because Jordan has asserted there isn’t much merit in the argument. All evidence has it though that men are paid more than women.

An argument followed as Peterson refused to back down. He argued the assertion is a flawed one because to arrive at this conclusion, only one question was asked by everyone who researched the theme: Does a pay gap exist between men and women? To arrive at an answer, all researchers put the question through a univariate analysis.

But if the question is reframed as “why” does a pay gap exist between genders, multiple factors must be considered—and he argued he has evidence from various studies to demonstrate that gender has a very small role to play in a developed society when it comes to dealing with the pay gap. There are other issues at play, but are either trivialised or overlooked by overzealous feminists. And that society is afraid to call their bluff.

On her part, Newman was infuriated, and let it be known in as many words. They both refused to back off. What followed was a fiery conversation between a journalist and an academic. It is a riveting one and those who watched the interview went home richer. May I urge you to take 30 minutes out to watch the exchange? Neither of them had the upper hand. But they had the muscle to cross-question each other intelligently.

Soon after, I purchased Jordan’s book and started to browse through it. It has all the makings of an interesting read. I am hoping to find if there may be some pointers there that suggest what muscle may people like Peterson and Newman have in them to stand their ground. If you may be inclined to listen to Peterson dwell on the principles broadly, you can watch him on stage here.

Back to the interview, I must admit, I feel much the same way Peterson does—that men and women are different. And I’m not talking of the pay gap here. But I certainly believe both genders are different. And that it is incumbent upon us as a society to accept it for what it is. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. We might as well accept that each of us has our own circles of competence. All attempts to deny it is philosophically bankrupt and pragmatically stupid.

For instance, I cannot deal with an overtly emotional situation. It is not because I don’t have emotions. But I cannot articulate them and when confronted with a charged situation where empathy is called for, find myself horribly unequipped. Machismo doesn’t make the cut there. At times like these, I would much rather the missus handles it. Does that make her better off than me? Most certainly. Because she is operating in her circle of competence.

When looked at from that perspective, she is better equipped than I am—in much the same way that I am better equipped than she is at certain things. Having said that, does that make us equals in all things? Certainly not.

But if a force like Newman were to confront me in this polarized world of ours where all discourse insists what is the “correct” narrative be followed, it is possible I may shrivel and back out to follow the “correct” narrative—whatever my internal narrative be. This raises a question: Why must I have to cow down to what is accepted as “correct” in the circuits I am a part of? Is the need to “feel wanted” that important that I be willing to sacrifice myself?

That thought occurred to me while browsing over Rule 4 of what looks like an intensely researched book. A passage there caught my eye. The sum and substance of this “meditation” as he calls each “Rule” in the book, is around being “kind to the self”. Much like voices from the outside that suggest what we ought to do, there are internal critics inside us that constantly ridicule and deride our self-worth. It is important that we be aware these critics exist inside us, he posits. Because we live in a world where the need to measure our self-worth constantly is inflicted upon us all the time from platforms of all kinds. Therefore, he writes:

“Be cautious when you’re comparing yourself to others. You’re a singular being, once you’re an adult. You have your own particular, specific problems—financial, intimate, psychological, and otherwise. Those are embedded in the unique broader context of your existence. Your career or job works for you in a personal manner, or it does not, and it does so in a unique interplay with the other specifics of your life. You must decide how much of your time to spend on this, and how much on that. You must decide what to let go, and what to pursue.”

And some pages later, he offers a suggestion: The first step, perhaps, is to take stock. Who are you? It is an incredibly tough question to answer. Some pointers on how may it be attempted are painted in that all time classic Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker. I’ve read it multiple times and some of the most pertinent questions that appear in it are scribbled away as notes on the margins, which I revisit every once a while.

Drucker suggests every person start by asking themselves a set of questions on what kind of a person they are:

  • Am I a loner?
  • Am I a team person?
  • Am I a subordinate?
  • Am I a coach or a mentor?

Having done that, the next set follows. Do I produce results as a…

  • Decision maker?
  • Advisor?

Because some of the best advisors, he writes, cannot decide. And decision makers who must take split second calls, oftentimes need advisors before they can act. His research and conversations suggest that to head a project or an organisation, decision making capabilities are needed. Place an advisor there instead and failure is inevitable because they will vacillate.

After these questions are answered, it is important to drill one level deeper:

  • Do I perform well under stress?
  • Do I need structure and a predictable environment?
  • Do I work best in a big entity?
  • How will I fare at a small place?

By way of example, a decision maker at a small place who can perform well under stress may not be suited for a structured environment in a big entity. Their types may insist they are cut-out to lead start-ups. Answers to questions like these offer pointers to what are the most likely paths an individual can take that they may succeed. But this is a tough ask.

Some pointers to how to go about doing it emerges from a more recent title, Essentialism by a management consultant and author Greg McKewon. The multiple pointers he places on the table take off from Drucker’s narrative.

By way of perspective: “There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference—learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential. Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”

This, to McKewon’s mind, points to a curious trend. Even after the most intelligent people have figured what is the right thing to do, they don’t know how to focus on getting it done. Why?

“One reason is that in our society we are punished for good behaviour (saying no) and rewarded for bad behaviour (saying yes).”

This, he suggests, has much to do with the nature of how the world around us has changed. “Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.”

There is much merit in what he says. Ours is a world where there are too many opinions and very little muscle to build a unique one. But how is one to do that? This is why I like mental models of all kinds. Two that have my attention right now and I have been tinkering with are around Radical Inflexibility and Monkey Watching.

Model #1: Radical Inflexibility

This is a model I picked up from Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of the Good Life. Convention has it that our world is always in flux and that we must adapt all of the time. This is an argument that has much merit. But counterintuitively, Dobelli suggests inflexibility is a good strategy at time.

“Use radical inflexibility to reach long-term goals that would be unrealizable if their behaviour were more flexible. How so? Two reasons.

“First: constantly having to make new decisions situation by situation saps your willpower. Decision fatigue is the technical term for this. A brain exhausted by decision-making will plump for the most convenient option, which more often than not is also the worst one. This is why pledges make so much sense. Once you’ve pledged something, you don’t then have to weigh up the pros and cons each and every time you’re faced with a decision. It’s already been made for you, saving you mental energy.

“The second reason inflexibility is so valuable has to do with reputation. 

“Legendary investor Warren Buffett, for instance, refuses on principle to negotiate. If you want to sell him your company, you’ve got exactly one shot. You can make precisely one offer. Buffett will either buy the company at the price you suggest, or he won’t buy it at all. If it’s too high, there’s no point lowering it. A no is a no, and everybody realizes that. Buffett has acquired such a reputation for inflexibility that he’s now guaranteed to be offered the best deal right from the word go, without wasting any time on haggling.”

I’ve attempted to deploy this for a few weeks now. I am radically inflexible about not conversing with anyone between 10 pm and 9 am. It gives me much time with myself. But above all else, nobody now calls me at these hours. I know now I am not as important as I thought I was.

This is my “me time” to do what I “choose” to do as opposed to have somebody else set the agenda for me.

Model #2: Monkey Watching

It’s been a little over a year now since I started to devote 30 minutes each day to meditate. One message that constantly comes through is to “detach yourself from what you feel so that you may observe yourself in the third person.”

Try as I may, it has been difficult. But there is a trick I stumbled across someplace. What if I imagine each emotion that passes through the mind as a living creature? What would it be? What may each creature look like? What names may they have? How may they behave?

When thought up that way, a visual metaphor that emerged was that of many monkeys. So when there is much happiness, I see Happy Monkey with a unique personality all the other monkeys can see as well. They know this fellow is doing his gig right now and will be at it for a while.

But when some event occurs that triggers a monkey called Anger to jump into the fray, Happy Monkey will concede ground. Angry Monkey wears a certain demeanour that when looked at from the branch all the other critters are sitting on, actually looks funny. These monkeys, it seems, work in groups as well and follow patterns.

By way of example, I can predict now that if I give in to Whimsical Monkey who doesn’t think much about consequences and decides to binge watch Netflix or Amazon Prime into the night beyond a mandated hour, the next day is certain to be ruined. Because Routine Monkey insists it likes me to be up early before most people are up. But that upsets Sleep Monkey that hasn’t got what it thinks is its fair share and gangs up with Fatigue Monkey, Distraction Monkey, Anger Monkey and Bad Decision Monkey. While I can see all of them clinically, when they work together, they can wreak havoc.

The flipside to all of this is that Monkey Watching offers the perspective of distance and an injects an element of humour as well. There have been a few times when I have actually laughed at Angry Monkey because he looks funny when he wears that grumpy look and everyone else knows he can accomplish nothing with his sabre rattling.

The good Lord alone knows how many models like these may exist and how many ways there are to look at like. There is much to be explored, learned, and lived through. But what it does is offer some perspective on what may it take to look at the world from a lens that is mine and mine alone—and one that refuses to be by popular narrative.

It insists Count #MeOut. I don’t need anyone to set what narrative or agenda I must follow. I’ll discover my own narrative. There is only one precious life I have. Thank you for asking though if your agenda may interest me.

(This is an expanded version of a column first published in Livemint.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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