Best Books I Read in 2016

Every year, I spend ample time on selecting the books to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and other books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

 

1. The Call Of The Wild - Jack London

I read it in a single bus ride from Dharmashala to Delhi. And every time I am looking for a new book to read, my thoughts go back to reading this book again. It's that good. It is not a complicated story but the writing style and the narrative evoked strong emotions in me. Sometimes, I see myself in Buck, the dog who is the main character. At other times, I see myself in his owners. I don't want to reveal more, go ahead and find it out for yourself. Thank me later.

2. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

This was my fourth attempt to read this book. While in the first two attempts, I barely managed to move past a few pages, in the third one I read till about 100 pages and then stopped. The blame for not being able to finish it earlier rests solely on the immaturity of my ability to grasp the meaning and perhaps a lack of focus. It has got nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Quality - that is what this book is, and is about. I associate myself very closely to it - the writer's questions are the ones I seek, his fears are what haunt me in tense moments at night. I am a big fan of rational thought process, and thoroughly enjoyed the writer's journey to find the ghost of rationality. If you do decide to read this, take your time, don't rush and let every new concept sink in.

 3. The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

It is more like a very long essay than a book.  The art of making tea and the philosophy of life derived from it (Teaism) has left me deeply enamored. On its face value, you might assume that the author has written about the ways of making tea, its history, and its effect on Japanese culture. All that is there along with much more. The metaphors used can be applied to our daily life and provide a simple way to live in harmony with the nature that is around and inside of us. This book taught me a lot more about life in subtle ways than any other book could directly.

4. The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Oe

If you are looking for a simple story to read, don't pick this book. Oe's stories, much like human behaviors are layered and multi-dimensional. They reveal to us the depth of emotions which we may or may not express to each other but harbor inside ourselves. So, in a way, Oe's books are a mirror to our deepest, darkest feelings. This is the second time that Oe's work has featured in my end of year best-of list. And honestly, I feel that it doesn't matter what the specifics of the book are, if it's an Oe, it'll find its way on such lists.

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

There are few books which make me laugh out loud. There are fewer which invoke pathos. And the books which can do both are even rarer. Catch-22 falls in the third kind. Each character brings something different to the story - humor, despair, innocence, vitality, absurdity, lunacy. The sum of all these parts lends a fascinating quality to the whole. As much as this is a great book to read, it is also a brilliant education in how to write a good story.

Currently Reading - When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I am half-way through this and I suspect it will find its way into my best of list soon.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:
Best of 2015
Best of 2014
Best of 2013

The Priming Effect and Making The World A Better Place

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted something more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

This is the second post in the series. Words in italics are taken directly from the book. You can read the first post here: Ego-Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters


PRIMING

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH. 

This is a Priming Effect. The idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effect takes many forms. If EAT is on your mind, you will recognize the word SOUP quicker if it is spoken in a whisper or written in a blurry font. You will also be primed for other food-related ideas like hungry, cookies, ice cream. If you ate at a wobbly table, you will be primed for 'wobbly' as well. Like ripples in a pond, priming spreads across a network of associated ideas.

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions can be primed by events you are unaware of. In an experiment, young students were asked to assemble a four-word sentence from a set of five words (for example, "find he it yellow instantly"). For one group, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. After this, the students were sent in an office down the hall for the next task. That short walk was the actual experiment. The time it took to cross the hall was measured for each person. The students who had formed a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than the others.

This experiment involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, even though the word 'old' is never mentioned. Second, these thoughts prime a behavior - walking slowly, which is associated with old age. Afterwards, when the students were questioned, they insisted that nothing they did after the experiment could have been influenced by the words. So, this effect happens without us being aware of it.

This priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as The Ideomotor Effect

If after reading the earlier paragraph, you wanted a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair - unless you dislike the elderly, in which case you might have been slightly faster than usual.

Reverse Ideomotor effect also holds true. If you were walking slowly, you would tend to recognize words like old, wrinkle, or bald faster. So, the age-old advice of smiling in the moments of adversity is quite useful. Just like amusing thoughts make you smile more, smiling more brings amusing thoughts. Acting like you are calm is likely to be rewarded by actual tranquility.

 

PRIMING IN OUR CULTURE

In another experiment, few volunteers were asked to construct a sentence from a selection of money related words ('high a desk salary paying' became a high-paying salary'). Other primes were introduced like a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. The results of this experiment were astounding:

  1. Money primed people became more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered longer to solve a difficult problem before asking for help, clearly showing increased self-reliance.
  2. Money primed people were also more selfish. They were much less willing to help a fellow participant who was confused about a task. When someone dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, money primed people helped pick fewer pencils. 
  3. They also showed preference for being alone. Money primed people placed their chair farther apart from others than the ones who weren't primed.

These findings present a profound inference:

In a culture where we are constantly reminded of money, it is shaping our attitude and behavior in ways that we are unaware of and of which we may not be proud.

Another common portrayal of this priming effect is in dictatorial societies where the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that 'The Big Brother Is Watching' but also lead to a reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action.

Some other common priming examples:

  1. Reminding people of mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas. 
  2. Uniforms are the anti-prime of creativity.
  3. Thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back will make you more inclined to buy soap or disinfectant  than juice, candy or batteries (Feeling that one's soul is stained triggers a desire to clean one's body).

You could react to these studies by disbelieving them. After all, we are all rational beings who think logically and are not affected by such trivial manipulations. But, the fact is that the results are authentic; they are not statistical flukes. The conclusions are true, and more importantly, they are true about me and you. If we were exposed to a dollar bills screensaver, we too would pick up fewer pencils to help a clumsy stranger.

 

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

I find the effects of priming astonishing. The profundity and width of its implications in our lives makes my head spin.

The simple act of reading the newspaper in the morning can affect the quality of our day. If you look at the majority of the front page news, it is sensational and often depressing. This is probably the worst way to start your day. It primes us to being more pessimistic and drains out energy for positive action. And as we found earlier, this happens without us being conscious of it.

So, does that mean that we should ignore all the negative happenings of the world? No. What it means is that we should ignore the inconsequential negative stuff. For example, do we really need to read about two celebrities bitching about each other. It doesn't add value to our lives, in fact, if were to accept the priming effect, it is going to make us meaner and drive us to the edge.

I remember an incident a few months back. It was late at night and I was checking Twitter about an event that was shaking up the world. I can't recollect what it was, but safe to say, it elicited extreme reactions from people. And, I was aghast  at the negativity surrounding the event. Random people were writing searing comments and I felt angry just by reading them. I took note of my rising heartbeat and promptly closed the app. Was the mass hysteria necessary? I doubt it.

Gossip, sensationalism and negativity like this is Antifragile ( ref. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ) - our attacks on them increase their resilience to obscurity. If we instead chose to deny it our acknowledgement, it will die of its own accord. 

So, can we collectively decide to tone down the frequency of discussions around negative incidents? Instead, why not talk about culture bearers, the ones who move our society forward? For example, instead of talking about a sexist comment by some celebrity, let’s talk about stories of women who have done something outstanding by breaking their traditional boundaries. By doing this, we are not ignoring the women who were disrespected in the first incident. But, we are choosing to bring change by showing the good (priming) instead of condemning the bad. 

If our parents read more stories of people taking unconventional paths, they might find it easier to accept your idea of quitting the job and traveling the world. Or, if we are amazed by a cannabis community celebration ( YouTube Link), perhaps it is time to share our own happy weed stories.  

 

END NOTES

Based on everything we read so far, 'Be positive' becomes not just a hippy mumbo-jumbo but a practical motto with real effects on our lives. Surround yourself with settings which would encourage the behavior you want to demonstrate. So, instead of reading news in the morning, I listen to good music and exercise. And then, to prime me for writing well, I read a nice book.

A lot of our decisions are impulsive and driven not by a rational, thought out process but by our whims and fancies influenced by external factors. So, if we want our decisions to make us better human beings, shouldn't we put ourselves in situations that make us the best version of ourselves? And if we all decide to do that, the world might just become a better place.

A final suggestion: Try out the priming effect on your own. Perhaps do a small experiment like not reading the newspaper in the morning for a week. Or, starting the day with upbeat music. See for yourself if it makes your day better. And let me know how it goes.

There is a very recent article on Slate which tells a different story on the priming effect. Here's where you can read it: Sad Face

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Read Next: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

Cover Image via Unsplash

Ego Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

Thus far, I have read only a quarter of the book. So, I think this could be a series of posts. We'll see about that when we cross that bridge. 

 

Ego-DepletioN

‘An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This phenomenon is known as Ego Depletion.’

This means that if you are involved in cognitively challenging tasks, especially the ones which you don't want to do, you would be more susceptible to give in to your urges later. An example from the book: Suppose I ask you to remember a sequence of 7 digits for a couple of minutes. And you are told that this is the number one priority for you. If at the end of two minutes, you were asked to choose between a virtuous fruit salad or a sinful chocolate cake, chances are you would choose the cake. 

In a demonstration of the concept, a group of people were asked to stifle their emotional reactions after watching an emotionally charged movie. This group then performed poorly in a physically draining task immediately after. The emotional effort of the first half of the experiment, reduced their ability to sustain physical pain and they gave in to their urge to quit more quickly.

 

Why having a job you like matters

An important implication of the concept of ego-depletion is that the kind of job you do, and how you feel about it dictates the rest of your day as well. An effort of will or self-control is tiring. So, if you are forced to work at a place you don't like, chances are that after coming back home, you might eat more junk food, watch more senseless TV and indulge lesser in creative interests.

For example, a friend of mine who hates her job enjoys painting. But, she found that after coming back home, she had little drive to do the one thing she loves - paint. She would scroll her Facebook feed endlessly, or watch movies and not feel good about it. Ego-depletion is in part a loss of motivation. The ego-depleting job reduced her desire to engage in creative pursuits (the hard task) and made her give in to the urges (the easy task).

Instinctively, you know that your job is screwing your life (if you hate the job), but now you know exactly why. If I look back at my behavior when I was working at a regular job, the regular drinking and going out was succumbing to my urges as much as it was a deliberate fun activity.

So, if you don’t do anything productive after work and feel guilty about it, cut yourself some slack. It’s biology. Your ego is depleted and you need a change of work or a glass of fresh juice. No, really. Read on.

 

Mental energy is more than a metaphor

The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. So, the more strenuous your task is, the more glucose is consumed. Blood glucose level drops and the next task becomes more difficult to execute. 

In a demonstration of this concept, a group of volunteers was shown a short film featuring a woman. They were asked to interpret her body language. While they were at their task, a series of words crossed across the screen to distract them. And they were instructed to ignore the words, and refocus their attention on the woman if they found their attention drawn away. This self-control caused ego-depletion. After the end of the task, half of them were given glucose and the other half were not. Then, a second task followed where they needed to overcome their intuitive response to get the correct answer. The ones whose glucose level had increased performed much better than the others. The restoration of available level of sugar in the brain prevented the deterioration of performance.

A more disturbing demonstration of this phenomenon was in a study done on eight parole judges in Israel. Their job was to review applications for parole the whole day. It was found that the number of applications they approved was higher immediately after their food breaks. And, it dropped close to zero as the time since their last meal increased. The inference made from this data was that tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.

 

Glucose For The Win

It seems almost too trivial to even point out - drink a refreshing sugary drink after a challenging task. This isn’t news right? We all know it intuitively. But, knowing the science and how it affects the rest of our day helps. So, I have started keeping a reserve of lemonade with ample sugar in the fridge. When I feel tired, a glass of it restores my glucose level. Also, since I am convinced of the positive effect of glucose, a placebo kicks in and refreshes me even more.

Let me know if it works for you.

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Read Next: After-Office Productivity Hacks

 

The Why and How of a Daily Meditation Habit

Practicing meditation is a new habit that I want to develop and add into my daily schedule. I tried this earlier in a casual whenever-I-find-time kind of a way but it didn't work. Thus, I have decided to create a more formal plan this time. Hopefully, you can use these steps to create a new habit for yourself, whether it be meditation or something else.

 

THE WHY

The first critical step is to answer the question of why do you want to build the habit. At certain times in the habit forming process, you will have weak moments where you would want to give up for various reasons. Your answer to 'The Why' should help you persevere through the struggle against quitting. And the more objective this answer, the more undeniable the benefit of the habit becomes.

A few years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of daily meditation. This was because I couldn't see a tangible causal relationship between meditation and improvement of life. At worst, I thought of it to be an elaborate scam. And, a placebo at best. This idea changed because of two Whys.

First: To improve my life by 10%. Where did this number come from? It is an arbitrary number which is the bottomline of the book 10% Happier. I don't claim that it is scientific by any measure, but I am willing to believe it to be true if it is backed by something less subjective such as my second why.

Second: All the positive results of the scientific studies conducted on the benefits of mediation. Some highlights of the findings via Headspace:

  • According to Neuroscientists as you continue to meditate your brain physically changes, even though you’re not aware of it re-shaping itself.
  • Research has found meditation to promote ‘divergent thinking’ a type of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated.
  • Neuroscientists have also found that, after just 11 hours of meditation, practitioners had structural changes in the part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self control.

Further Reading on Science behind Meditation: Buffer BlogForbesWikipedia

I got one such test done myself when I was at Auroville. My brain activity chart as compared to a regular meditator looked like a busy intersection of an urban city at office hours. It was messed up. 

Along with this, I read personal experiences of people and spoke to some friends who sing praises of the technique - technique, yes, that is what it is. Once I started thinking of it as a technique to sharpen the mind, along with the scientific studies to back the claim, my rational mind warmed up to the idea.

So, I thought of giving it a shot. And it felt pretty good. Not like out of the world good, but decent. Like my life became 10% better. If something which takes up only 10-15 minutes of my day (which is about 1% of the day) makes my life 10% better, I think it is a good deal to take. So, now that the intention is set, motivation is high, let's find the next step.

 

THE HOW

1. Trigger

If you read my post about creating an exercise and reading habit, you would know what I am talking about. A trigger is an activity which is already present in your daily schedule that is followed by your new habit. For example, my exercise is triggered by brushing my teeth. Or my morning reading is triggered by the end of my exercise. When the trigger goes off, I instinctively know what I have to do next since it is already planned. I save myself the struggle of trying to find ways to fit it into my schedule. 

Meditating at the start of the day makes my morning too rigid and leaves me with a late start to work. So, here's what I plan to do: I will meditate in the evening right after having a shower. It is a perfect time for me since that is when I usually take a break from work and go have a bath. The meditation right after shower will hopefully refresh me enough to take on the second half of my workday with more energy.

The Trigger = Taking a shower

2. Quantity

I'll start small. Not an hour a day, or 30 minutes or even 15. I am going to start with 10 minutes a day. I want to gradually increase it to 15, then 20 and top it off at 30 minutes. 10 minutes isn't actually that small for a start. If you were to do it, I would recommend starting with ridiculously smaller amounts like 1 or 2 minutes. But since I have been doing it infrequently over the last few months, I know that 10 minutes is good for me.

3. Accountability

While building a new habit, it helps to have an accountability partner. It is someone who you feel answerable to if you feel like taking a day off. Even though I am the kind of guy who likes to be self-reliant and likes to do things on his own, I realised the usefulness of this while trying to quit smoking. My girlfriend is my accountability partner there and she keeps reminding me certain things whenever I have the urge. By writing this post and sharing it with you all, you have become my accountability partners. We may not meet or speak frequently, but I would know that I have promised to do something and hopefully it will keep me on track. 

4. Tools

I plan to use an app called Insight Timer to keep time and track my progress. It is a nifty app which shows how many people are meditating at the same time as you. It's a nice touch and helps me stay on track.

There is another useful app for guided meditation called Headspace. Or you can use Coach.me for tracking other daily habits.

5. Technique and Study

From what I read so far, there seem to be multiple techniques of meditating. I am going to start simple by focusing on my breath. As I progress, I plan to learn new techniques and include them in my practice.

The study is optional for a meditation habit. But, I recommend it and it comes from my philosophy that learning about a trade deeply improves the experience. For example, if I enjoy a movie, I tend to go online and read about the stories behind its production and trivia associated with it. I spoke about it in an earlier post called How to Have More Fun at Fun.

 

END NOTES

Much like the rest of our body, the mind needs exercise as well. You could solve puzzles or do brain games & training. Meditation is another such thing to strengthen and train your mind. I would recommend giving it a try and then judge it based on your own experience. I did a meditation session yesterday and it was tough. 10 minutes seemed long. I felt both physically and mentally uncomfortable. But, I'll treat this as the initial pain when the brain muscle is jerked awake from its sleep and I'll persevere. 

Any regular practitioners out there? Would love to hear your experience so far.

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Read Next:  Mindfulness - An Introduction

Bhutan & The Art of Chilling - Stories from The World's Happiest Country

In March of last year, a night of drinking turned interesting when two people in Gurgaon booked flight tickets for five without their consent. I booked mine soon after. And thus, next month, six of us hired motorbikes to venture on a road trip to Bhutan. 


BAGDOGRA/SILIGURI

The first part of the journey was a flight to Bagdogra. It is the nearest airport to Siliguri where we hired the bikes from. As I waited for my friends to pick me up from the airport, I started writing in my notebook.

Sidenote 1: Here's a problem I have with travel writing - the real emotions and details of a noteworthy time can only be expressed if you capture them right then. Otherwise, the perfect words are lost, the true feeling is forgotten. But, if you do write them at that instant or soon after, it impacts your experience of the moment. Thus, I chose to just live the following days and not think about how I want to write those down.

We found our bikes at a tiny garage which was the size of a small tea-stall. As I took one out for a test ride, a massive hailstorm appeared out of nowhere. After much struggle, and in near darkness (the electricity had gone out) I found respite under a shop’s tin roof. Those few moments, I felt like a character out of a Bangla movie - rain dripping off my clothes, cigarette smoke and 20 people huddled together under one tin roof. All that was missing was someone reciting a Tagore poem. 

Eventually, after rounds of adjusting the RPM, brakes and such to our liking, we tied our luggage with the bungee cords on the bikes and proceeded to find a hotel for the night.


RIDE TO Phuentsholing

The next morning, after a heavy breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes. This is mention-worthy because we had to tie them carefully otherwise we ran the risk of a wobbly ride.

Ready to roll

 First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

As we made a move, wide open roads lined with tea estates on either side greeted us. The traffic was sparse and it was bright and sunny. We raced along at a fairly quick speed, albeit with quite a few breaks in between and reached Jaigaon in about 4 hours. The roads were a dream, except for the last half an hour stretch. Scenery changed from tall trees to wide open fields through small villages. The geography is completely flat - no mountains yet.

Jaigaon is the border town of India and shares its boundary with Bhutan’s counterpart, Phuentsholing. We stopped there to withdraw money from the ATM. There, if you need to buy something, people return you change in Bhutanese currency. But if you want to pay in Bhutanese Ngultrum, it costs you 6% extra.

The border


Phuentsholing

 

Two guards stood at a wide gate. It didn’t look anything like a country’s border - you would expect more security at one. We entered Bhutan through this gate, riding on our bikes, making heads turn. As soon as you enter, the roads climb up and mountains appear after the plains of India. It is as if they divided the countries based on where the mountains begin.

Phuentsholing gave us a preview of what to expect in Bhutan. A quiet, slow motion of people, vehicles and life in general. From the cacophony of noises at Jaigaon, we arrived in the clean and noiseless world of Bhutan. It was like entering a cocoon, and the sounds from just across the border, a mere 100 metres behind us, seemed like coming from far away. The picture of their King stared at us from everywhere.

Sidenote 2 : Every household, shop, bar, office, event has a picture of the Royal Couple or The King or both. Today, Bhutan is a democracy which was in fact brought in large parts by an earlier Monarch. The present King is well loved among the masses.

You can enter Phuentsholing without anyone asking for an identity proof. But, if you want to travel further, you need a permit. We had been told that the permit office is closed on Sunday so we went around looking for a hotel. We jumped a signal and a traffic cop immediately came to confront us. And man what a cop he was! Chatty, friendly and apologetically nice. He informed that the permit office was open that day because of high tourist frequency. So, that's where we headed first.

The permit process is painless. You fill a couple of forms, give a proof of your identity (Passport, Voter Id, Driver's License - anything works), get your picture clicked, finger prints are taken and you are done. We noticed a pattern that was to become a constant theme in Bhutan. Everyone we met seemed to have all the time in the world. You became their complete focus of attention. The permit officer chatted with us and told us of stories of the celebrities who came to his office. We exchanged our Indian Rupee for Bhutanese Ngultrum even though most places accept INR too.

View from the hotel

We had still not found a hotel. Guess who helped? The traffic cop. He left his spot and spoke to a couple of hotel owners to find a place for us. Who does that? I mean, really, who does that?

Anyway, we ended up going to a different hotel - Hotel Druk. All this while, we had left our bikes unattended with our luggage on them. And there was never a moment when we were scared of losing our stuff. And I think that's mention-worthy too. Bhutan feels safe and welcoming.

In the evening, we roamed the streets and found a dance bar called Sonam Trophel. Dance bars are a common sight in Bhutan. And lot of them are run by women.

Sidenote 3 : This is where I should point out that Bhutan is primarily a matriarchal society. Most shops, restaurants, hotels, bars that we came across were run by women.

At the bar, we had a few beers and constantly refused to entertain the girls who solicited our money in exchange for a dance. After these shenanigans, we came out, drank and chatted with the funniest locals. 

Sidenote 4 : Let me add one thing which would make the rest of this travelogue easy. Whenever I say 'locals', always add the adjectives funny, friendly, chatty, and helpful to it. 

It was raining and we were hungry. So, we ran in the rain to find a place to eat. Unsuccessful, we returned to our hotel. And that's when something awesome happened.

Beautiful Story 1
One of us was very hungry. Very, very hungry. So, like a bad-ass, he knocked on the next door and asked for something to eat. Anything. A biscuit, even. The man named Jimmy, who was a local (did you add the adjectives?) understood the gravity of the situation. He asked us to wait for a bit. A little later, we looked outside from our windows and saw a woman on the street walking towards our hotel under the shelter of an umbrella. It looked like she was carrying something under her arm. This was past midnight.

Her name was Kay and she was Jimmy's friend. She had brought with her packets of Koka, Bhutanese version of Maggi but much better. The man had a stove and they freaking cooked for us. We spent the night hanging out together. And there we sat, eating Koka, sharing Old Monk with them (which they liked very much, who doesn't?), and appreciating the kindness of this country's beautiful people.

Next morning, we checked out of the hotel to get permits for our bikes. Meanwhile, some of us got local SIM cards and bought some stuff for the rest of the trip (Druk beer, Druk ketchup, Druk chips, Druk everything).

Bike Troubles

Once this was sorted, we headed towards our next destination - Paro. But, as luck would have it, one of the bikes broke down. It was an old Enfield model and we had been skeptical about it from the beginning. So, there we were stranded a few kilometres from Phuentsholing and wondering what to do next. Just then, we saw a mini-truck passing by. One of us made the smallest of gestures, and almost on cue, the truck stopped. The locals then helped us carry the bike down to Jaigaon (where they had no business to go to ) to get them repaired. They refused our offer of money for their troubles.

After this ordeal, we postponed our ride to Paro. We returned to Phuentsholing and found a cheaper, nicer hotel where the receptionist-cum-owner spoke in the dreamiest of voices. We called it an early night to catch up on sleep for an early start the next day.

Food to try: Emma Datshi, is a delicious spicy gravy made of chilli and yak cheese. We tried this and variations of it with Rice. Second and third servings were required.


RIDE TO PARO

 

Except for the first few kilometres, the ride to Paro is bliss. Smooth tarmac, meandering across the mountains, no noise of horns (horns are banned in Bhutan) and few truck drivers posing mortal threat to your life. 

You can click on each picture in the blog to view an enlarged version

A little traffic just after Phuentsholing

Traffic Issues

We crossed a management college high up in the mountains. The students just sat outside chilling, doing nothing, enjoying the fine weather. A local came up to us and started chatting. He told us that 'Yahan padhai nahin hota, bas bang bang hota hai!' What did I tell you about the locals?

It got foggy really soon and all we could do stay on track was follow the taillight in front.

The Management College. people are just chilling outside

Lunch at Karma Hotel. 2nd from left

The policemen like our bikes

The roads were gorgeous

 A friendly, curious old man

A friendly, curious old man

 Entering Paro Valley

Entering Paro Valley

Just before Paro, there is a small village where we took a short break. A friend of ours was flying into Paro and we enquired some taxi drivers if they had seen her around. The next moment, they thrust their cell phones in our faces to show a porny GIF. #facepalm. They laughed like maniacs. Who are these people man? Why are they so happy, so friendly (over-friendly?), so out there?

We left for the airport to check if our friend was still there waiting for us. It turned out that the Airport had closed for the day. Wow! Where does this happen? We came back to the village and after much banter between the cab drivers and us, we got news that our friend had hiked up to a monastery and would be back soon. So, we spent our time playing football with some kids. Archery is a big thing in Bhutan, so there were some people playing take-aim at a stone with some kind of arrows as well.

They were two cool kids

Our friend arrived and we spent time in the nearby Snooker Parlor. Boy, it was fun. Not in the least because of my love for the game. Beer flowed. Games ensued. Did I mention that you get liquor everywhere in Bhutan? Even the tiniest retail shop would have a table, 4 chairs and a big stock of beers.

At the parlor, we met a Dentist who looked anything but. His job was a 11 to 4 after which he was free to do anything. So, he played Snooker. They all told us of the crazy Wednesday parties in Paro. Yeah, Wednesdays. Bhutan is awesome.

Sidenote 5 : Education upto Grade 10 and Primary Healthcare is free in Bhutan. Even complex procedures are relatively cheap. Couple this with the relaxed work arrangements and you start to understand why people are happy here.

Beautiful Story 2
On the way to Paro, one of us got into a minor accident with another bike which got a little damaged in the process. The fault was completely our own. Now, if this was in India, it would have become a big scene. But, Bhutan being Bhutan, that guy took a chill pill and actually helped us in our search to find a Helmet (which were in short supply there).


PARO

 

In Paro, we went straight to Hotel Sonam Trophel. It is just across the river and has good rooms and great food. The waiter-cum-errands boy also asked us if were going to the Wednesday party, he definitely was. It seemed like the whole town goes to the same party.

 The Hotel at Paro

The Hotel at Paro

The stream across the hotel

Next day we trekked to Tiger's Nest Monastery. The monastery hangs on a steep cliff edge at 10,000 ft above the Paro Valley. The trek is about three hours of moderate climb. At the beginning of our climb, we saw a local coming down. We asked him of the route and he suggested that we should take the short-cut he was coming from. This was the gravest mistake we could have made. Seriously, don't ever take the short cut. It is steeper, and harder. At half way, there is a cafe which is exorbitantly priced, even for a bottle of water. So, I'd recommend carrying your own snacks and water.

The monastery is a picture of quiet and peace. A lot of tourists ply on the route. It was almost crowded at some points. But, inside the monastery, it doesn't feel like there are many people. It is noiseless, clean and windy. If you stay still at one spot and just breathe, profound moments emerge aplenty. You might pause and question the validity and importance of the decisions in your life, if not life itself, even if just for a few moments.

We begin the climb to The Small White Thing on top

To this big imposing structure

The route was interesting

The cafe at the midway was a good place to rest

The view was grand

And we made it

It was magnificent

As we came down, we saw locals climbing up, even in the light rain, carrying supplies up. The knick-knack sellers near the base of the trek kept requesting our attention.

This was a Wednesday -  the night of the hyped up party. As some of us got ready, a couple of us went down to the nearest Snooker parlor, played guitar, beat the owners at the game and got ourselves free beers.

More of Paro 1

More of Paro 2

The party was the bomb. It was in the basement of an ordinary building. Inside, it was one big dance floor in the center with some seats on a raised platform around it. We were a little early, arriving there at about 10.30 pm. We got chatting with a couple of girls who told us that they have studied in Bangalore and they miss the slow pace of Paro. As the night progressed, it got more crowded and we found interesting people to talk and dance with. The music, mainly EDM, was good. We came back with some locals who were kind enough to walk us to our hotel. 

Next morning, we left for Thimpu.


THIMPU


It was a brilliant day for riding. Bright sunshine, cool breeze and the road hugging the mountains. We did not rush and drove at a leisurely pace of 50km/hr. The speed limit and speed detectors along the way was a big reason. Also, by now, we had a little bit of Bhutanese chill in our soul. 

Entering Thimpu

Street lined with shops and hotels

A diligent traffic cop. But, where's the traffic?

A great view welcomed us as we entered Thimpu, an organised village, as the locals call it. The Buddha statue high up on the mountain overlooked the city. It felt like we were in a video game - no randomness, everything moved slowly and in incremental steps. All the carslooked robotic, self-driven vehicles moving at a pedestrian speed of 25 km/hr. The roads were clean, and the areas to park bikes and cars were marked clearly. The feeling of having arrived in the Capital of the happiest country in the world was wonderful.

Sidenote 6 : Most of Bhutan till this point had great weather and clean air. Being a proper city, I expected Thimpu to be a more polluted. It wasn't, at least not enough to be bothersome.

The Buddha Statue

The view from the top. That's a nice football ground

After a great lunch, we looked for place to stay. Hotels in Thimpu can be cheap or expensive without being very different from each other in terms of comfort. Being the capital, things were a little pricey. Most hotels had a curfew time of 11 p.m. which we wanted to avoid. We asked a passerby for a hotel recommendation and he stopped doing what he was doing and almost took us to the hotel himself. Finally, we found a nice, cozy place run by women, young girls, a boy and a dog. They were the sweetest people who treated us like gods. The Bhutanese hospitality is amazing.

As the evening set in, we roamed around the streets, drinking soup from the roadside vendors, shopping for Bamboo pickles, Yak cheese, prayer flags and handmade bags. I stopped to get a recharge for my phone and found the girl listening to Honey Singh. Yeah, bollywood is popular in Bhutan. We spent some time watching a SAARC cultural festival. The Indian group told the story of Goddess Kali and her nemesis.

The Indian contingent

We spent that evening in a dance bar which was run by an Indian woman. The girls there soon figured that we were not the kinds to pay for a dance. So, they employed a different tactic. They sat next to us and said they were thirsty, and can we buy them juice? How can you no to that? So we did give them money, no idea if juice was bought and the thirst was quenched. We were the only customers at that time. The matron of the bar invited us to dance on stage and we joined her reluctantly. In all honesty, it felt a little weird though and she sensed that. So as we were leaving, she was kind enough to come out and apologise. People in Bhutan are amazing. Kind and polite.

Next morning, we drove to Dochula pass just before Punakha. We couldn't go all the way to Punakha because our bike troubles ate our days. At the pass, 108 stupas are built in three concentric circles. A cafe stands opposite it where we spent our time relaxing. It was a nice drive and the weather was perfect.

Dochula Pass

As we returned in the evening, we found refuge in a bakery. The girl at the bakery told us that the King likes to meet Indians. She insisted that we must try to meet him. And the fools that we were, we began our mission of meeting the King of Bhutan. We thought he might even invite us for dinner. After all, who doesn't love to break bread with mysterious travelers from an exotic land far away, who have seen a thousand suns and crossed a hundred seas?

The King keeps traveling so we asked people if he was in town. We looked for his palace but instead found the late Royal Grandmother's palace grounds. But, we did not lose hope. We were adventurers of an indefatigable spirit. Next place we looked was a Dzong which served as the administrative centre of Thimpu. A guard threw suspicious glances at us and looked angry when we asked him how we could meet the King. So, we decided to give up on our mission. The guard sensed that, and immediately he came into his avatar of a Bhutanese local with all the adjectives. He was interested in photography and showed us his pictures clicked on a VGA phone. 

The imperious Dzong

In the evening, we visited a pub called Mojo Park. A band was playing good covers and a few originals. The vibe was brilliant. We half-joked that it would be fun if we could play on the stage. So, one of our over-enthusiastic friends, ended up asking the manager if we could play. And he said Yes!

Shruti and I, both were going to play the guitar and sing. I think we were quite poor. There was a lot of passion and little coordination. But, our passion evoked a fire in the hearts of the audience, or so I would like to believe. They all sang along with us every step of the way. After our renditions of Wish You Were Here and BC Sutta,  we heard cries of Encore! Then, Shruti did a solo of Zombie.

Drunk performers. In other words, normal humans

High on adrenaline, we went to a nightclub, danced the night away and roamed the streets drunk in spirit and happiness. It was a magical night. 

It was past 2 a.m. when we returned to the hotel and the door was closed. So we shouted and banged the doors until the boy came down to open the door. That was embarrassing and we felt sorry to have woken up the poor chap in the middle of the night.


RIDE BACK TO INDIA

 

Still in Bhutan

The next morning was our last in Bhutan. We took the bikes to the now routine task of getting them repaired. At the repair shop, we met the King's official rider. He drove a Desert Storm. Apparently the king was fond of bikes. Finally, we left around noon. On the way we met a couple of young boys - perhaps 13-14 years of age cycling their way from Thimpu to Paro, for no reason. We rode at a fairly decent speed trying to catch up on the lost time of our late start.

Yup, still there.

We stopped for food at Karma Hotel - the same place where we had lunch while coming from Paro. The girl at the hotel recognised us and enquired us of our trip. It is nice to make acquaintance with people on a trip and be able to meet them again.

Reluctantly, we bid adieu to Bhutan and entered Jaigaon. Just a week away from India, and the crowd, noise and dirt felt alienating. It was dark already and our bike troubles caught up with us soon. Some kilometres away from Jaigaon, one bike's battery died in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness. We parked our bikes in the compound of a villager's hut/farm. The two men were generous enough to offer us water and leave us in peace. The croaking frogs did not.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere

We called our bike guy, Noel, who was in Siliguri. It took him more than two hours to arrive with spares. It was past 1 am by the time the bike was repaired and we began for what would be the ride of a lifetime.

You see, Noel and his two biker friends were pro bikers. And we were not. They conveniently chose to ignore this fact and rode like the wind. It was completely dark - cloud cover in the sky and no streetlights. They drove at an insane speed and we followed the only thing we could see - their taillights.

Noel rode in front in the center with his halogen headlights switched off at times. The other two flanked him with lights switched on to show the way. The rest of us followed. It was wonderful. In the cold, dark night, 7 bikes went weaving on the roads, overtaking trucks, jumping over rail lines and logs of wood without slowing down a bit. 

Just follow the taillight and do as the guy in front does. Trust the light

We lost our way a bit and found beautiful countryside roads. By this time, the cloud cover had lifted and there was a hint of moonlight shining upon us. The reflectors on the road were hypnotic. The adrenaline was pumping and fueling our exhausted bodies and minds. 

Midway, we stopped to eat something at an all night dhaba and shared stories of our rides with each other. It was super. We got going again and went through an elephant populated area. So, we had to be careful of the ones who had strayed on the roads. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any.

We arrived in Siliguri at 5 in the morning. And after a couple of hours of sleep, we headed to the airport.


DAILY RITUALS

 

Every day, we had a few rituals that made the trip memorable.

  1. Tying/Untying the luggage on the bikes. This took upto 30 minutes daily.
  2. Switching bikes. Some bikes were great, some were not. So, it makes sense to give everyone a chance. We drove CBR 250, Enfield Electra 350, Enfield Thunderbolt 500, Enfield Classic Old model 350, and the humble CBZ 180.
  3. The new overtaking maneuver. Bhutan has smart drivers. If you want someone behind you to overtake, you switch on the left indicator. If instead you want to warn them of incoming traffic, you switch on right indicator. All of us followed it religiously and it made for a wonderful driving experience.
  4. Early morning laziness and screwed up plans. We are lazy people. We spent a lot of time at night discussing and agreeing to waking up early and making a move. It never happened.
  5. Stops for stretching the muscles and banter every hour.
  6. Hotel room chilling. We spent ample time drinking, chatting and goofing off together.

LEARNING THE ART OF CHILLING

 

A few days after returning from Bhutan, its effect had not worn off. We drove slower without honking, smiled more and had more time for everyone we met. We craved to go back often. There are some places which make you feel like you are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Bhutan is the opposite. It helps you appreciate the beauty in life's small details and human interactions.

Bhutan taught us to:

  • chill, to slow down - in some cases, quite literally. It taught us to respect outsiders and treat them with the kindness and love you would expect in return. 
  • be simple-hearted and be without your guards-up all the time. 
  • not rush to go to some place when you are already where you need to be. 
  • leave the place and the heart you enter a little better than you found it.
  • be sincere but not serious.
  • be humble without being servile.
  • enjoy our nights.

We've forgotten most of it. But, every once in a while, whenever a Bhutan memory resurfaces, a smiles finds its way on our faces. I hope you all get a chance to go. It's a wonderful place.

Tada!


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More Travel Stories

  1. An Elaborate Guide to Spiti Valley
  2. Auroville
  3. Jodhpur Riff Music Festival

Economics of a Self-Published Pay What You Want eBook - A Philosophical Study

Last year, I self-published an ebook on the lessons I learnt while running a startup. There were two main motives in writing that book:

  • I wanted to record the lessons I learnt for posterity
  • I hoped to help people learn from my success and failures

I chose to self-publish the book because I enjoy the idea of independence and self-sufficiency. It helped me develop skills like working on a big project under a self-imposed deadline. I also used my freshly learnt designing skills to create the book cover. Overall, it was a great personal growth experience.

The book's minimum price was set as 0, but you could choose to Pay What You Want (PWYW). Money was never my primary concern and I believed that keeping it PWYW would make it accessible to more people. 

Below you'll find some interesting data from the sales and the key insights I derive from them. Please note that my book was available on Amazon Kindle Store as well at a fixed price of INR 190. The numbers below do not take that into account.


1. Overall Sales

  • Total Downloads - 269 (INR 8413)
  • Paid - 34, Free - 235
  • Avg. Sale Value (paid only) - INR 247
  • Avg. Sale Value (all) - INR 31

Key Insights

  • 13% of the people who downloaded the book, chose to pay for it. If we are to go by The Pareto Principle (20-80 rule), this is to be expected. Although, it could be argued that in creative industries, the ratio of people who pay is much lesser.
  • The avg. sale value (paid only) is quite high. If I were to set a fixed price for the book, I would have set it much lower.

2. Downloads as a function of time

Click on the image to view an enlarged version

Key Insights

  • The two public announcements drove the most amount of paid sales
  • Free Downloads were a constant occurrence (probably driven by word of mouth and randomness)
  • Most downloads happened in a burst together. These could be attributed to the promotional activities I undertook - like publishing a sample chapter in a digital magazine
  • Pre-Orders accounted for only 18% of total downloads but 44% of the total revenue

3. Frequency of Sale Values

 

Key Insights

  • Minimum and Maximum amounts paid - INR 10 and INR 1001
  • Most common amount paid - INR 100
  • Interesting amounts - INR 101, 501, 1001 (I guess people chose this amount thinking that they are paying for a good cause)

What would be THE optimum price to MAXIMIZE revenue?

If I were to go back in the past, and instead of giving it away for PWYW, I wanted to assign a price to it, what should that number have been to maximise profit?

I'll save you the number crunching, this is what I derived from the data:

  • Best Price - INR 200
  • 2nd Best Price (if I go higher) - INR 300
  • 2nd Best Price (if I go lower) - INR 99

And of course, I'd make less money in either of these cases than what I did with PWYW. The assumption carried here is that anyone who is buying for say INR x, would also buy the book for INR x-y, where both x and y are positive numbers.


Philosophical MUSINGS ON PWYW

There used to be a hep cafe near where I lived. Although, in all honesty, it was less of a cafe and more of a place where people came to hang out, meet new people and discuss ideas. Among its regulars, it was the hub of cultural activities - poetry jam sessions, movie nights, book readings, gay pride events. It didn't serve much food - Tea and maybe some Momos.

There was no specified price to the items you bought. You could pay whatever you wanted. The cafe was surviving solely on the generosity of its patrons. Sadly, it shut down. It needed to raise a certain amount of money to pay the annual rent, but it could not.

The point of this story is that PWYW is a romantic idea which should work perfectly in an ideal world where we pay for a certain experience in proportion to the amount of value we stand to gain from it. 

An Ideal Transaction: Amount we are ready to pay for an experience/commodity ∝ Value we gain from it

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. We often pay more for a disproportionately low value experience and become miserly for high value products. But, why do we do this when clearly it's a suboptimal strategy to live a high quality life? 

The answer I believe is our unconscious biases:

1. Overvaluing a tangible commodity for its superficial nature - Think expensive clothing, eating out at that new fancy restaurant, or the shiny new gadget. I do not mean to discount the immediate value of any of those things. Nor do I mean to suggest that we buy only cheap stuff. Heck, I love a nice fancy meal once in a while myself. But, like on a hedonic treadmill, the more we engage in them, the lesser pleasure we derive each time. So having coffee in a good cafe once a fortnight gives more value than a daily visit.

Furthermore, the value given by products of this nature is often fleeting. Often, our perceived expected value of the experience is less than the actual value. (Example: The movie 'Deadpool'. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I derived more pleasure from the expectation of the awesomeness of the movie than the final product itself). 

Expected Value (EV) > Actual Value (AV) 

This is in part due to the subtle FOMO (fear of missing out) induced by peer pressure we face when everyone around is talking about it. The perceived value automatically becomes much higher than the AV.

 

2. Undervaluing an intangible benefit/experience - Think a good book, a music album which you'd play over and over again, software, a functional yet expensive piece of household accessory that is going to make your life exponentially better (an ergonomic chair, a standing desk, etc.) We forget that, in the long run, the value we get from these things is so much more than the cost we put into it. The over and over usage of their functionalities pays itself off and then some. In these cases:

EV < AV

I speculate that the reason we harbor biases against paying for such cases could be due to our latent (or in some cases, pronounced) desire to feel validated for our choices. We don't get that validation from buying an original copy of a software or a better chair for our back or buying an album. No one commends an item for its functional superiority, it is quite often the decorative qualities that attract attention. In fact, you could even be ridiculed for overspending or paying for something that could be pirated for free. But, if we recognize that this particular item is going to inspire us to be a better version of ourselves, the issue of cost would become much smaller.

Secondly, maybe the constant desire of novelty via external stimuli causes us to spend our budgets on EV>AV cases. So, we still torrent stuff which we could have acquired in an overarching package (e.g. at Netflix, Apple Music, Kindle Unlimited), costing less than one decent meal in a restaurant. But, we fail to understand that this is an insatiable desire - there will always be a new pub to try.

Coming back to PWYW, there are some positives of the concept. The freedom to choose how much you think something is worth makes your product accessible to so many more people. Think all those bands whose music we pirated and would now happily pay for one of their concerts. The question then becomes, how to make a living out of it.

With PWYW, there are always 3 categories of people:

  • Free loaders / hoarders - It is a gross generalization on my part, but most of these folks who don't pay are much less likely to actually consume your art. At my last company, Musicfellas, there were customers who downloaded only the albums which were PWYW for 0 bucks. I seriously doubt if any of them ever got played.
  • The Nice Guys - They are driven by a righteous sense of how an interaction with an artist in the modern world should look like. They pay an average amount and feel content with supporting the artists. You could expect them to listen/read/watch your work with a decent level of interest.
  • The 1000 True Fans - Below is a quote straight from the article linked here. These are the people who will be the highest payers and your most generous patrons. They will write back to you giving detailed, insightful feedback on your work.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

So, the answer to making a living out of PWYW format could be to build and engage with this community of 1000 true fans. I would love to hear success stories around you which hold true to this rule.


Philosophical musings on Self-Publishing

The numbers for my book, as you can see, aren't great. Even though people liked the book, the number of people to whom it has reached is quite less. I could ascertain a few possible reasons:

  1. My book was crappy
  2. My marketing strategy was crappy
  3. Both of the above
  4. Both the book and marketing strategy were average
  5. This is the nature of self-publishing

I am confident enough to discount #1 and thus #3. There was praise from my friends and strangers alike. But, that is not what convinced me. There were two instances which gave me confidence in my work. Both times, after a few rounds of drinks, a friend grabbed my kindle to check out the book, and they put it down only after finishing it.

I am pretty sure #2 was the major reason. Although I don't completely discount #4. The major motivation behind writing the book was to push myself to complete a big project. Promoting it wasn't much of a priority. I did do something about it but it was executed half assedly. 

On #5, this is a reality but with a caveat. Most of the success stories of today who have made self-publishing work for themselves have one thing in common. They all ventured into independence and self-publishing with already having their 1000 true fans(think Nine Inch Nails, Amanda Palmer). This is not to say that artists with virgin fan bases do not exist. But, intuitively, I would say they are a minority among the self-publishing success stories. I would love to be proven wrong, so hit me up with examples.

This is a genuine problem with self-publishing a piece of art. I saw this happening with our artists at Musicfellas and now first hand myself. Some of those musicians had really good music but just couldn’t let many people know about them. A possible way could be to, if possible, launch yourself with a major publishing house/art gallery/music label etc. In this vast mass of new content everyday, it has become a monstrous task to get yourself known - more so because artists cringe at the thought of self promotion. The seasoned biggies can take the burden of promotion off of your shoulders. And later, if you crave for independence, you could break away after a hit under your belt and take your fans with you.


End Notes

If you ask me whether I would choose self publishing again, I would probably say that not this time but maybe the next. Where PWYW is concerned, I haven't lost faith in that. As a consumer, I support creators on Kickstarter and Patreon where they allow me to choose my contribution amount. Not only do I get a high quality product, I also feel good about myself having made a small change in a creator's life - a win-win for both parties. I would highly recommend you to try it.

When I was read the final version of this post, I felt that it could come across as self-righteous to some. If that's the case, I assure you it was not my intention. It's just that this topic excites me a lot and I sometimes overdo myself. In any case, I would love to hear what you have to say on this. Leave a comment below or drop me an email at mj {at} mayankja.in

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Further Reading

  1. A Primer on Minimalism
  2. What Makes Us a Pirate
  3. The Art of Showing Your Creativity

A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

A few days ago, I sat drinking coffee at a restaurant which overlooks a Golf Course. Most of our day is spent looking at near objects and screens. So, when you get a chance to focus in the distance of the greens, the mind reminisces.

Looking at the people playing, I pondered about my own sports experiences and habits. I remembered my wins and losses. The memories brought back the emotions of those moments and a useful lesson along with it. 

What differentiated my wins from my losses? Why did I win some and lose others? The simple answer is that I played good on one day and bad the other. But, let's dig deeper and ask, why did that happen? After all, there was no change in my skill during a small period of time. I was on my 'A' game on winning days and 'C' or 'D' on the losing ones. Why?

The answer I found was: Lack of Focus. It is a much deeper problem than it appears on the surface. It is a mindfulness problem. 

Every day, at least once, I catch myself in the act of auto-piloting my life. I execute each activity because it needs to be done and I have to move on to the next one. This is fine to an extent - you can't be expected to be mindful of every time you brush your teeth, or wash your hands. But, every once in a while, when life is dull, and you are carrying through the chores of your life, it helps to take a step back. 

Observe the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, 'Do the dishes to do the dishes'. Be deliberate with your actions. Be aware of the present and stay in it. I have written about it earlier in a post describing an epiphany I had while driving. The benefit of having this as a daily habit is that it then slides over to the activities that matter.

How do we find this focus?

Imagine the future, reading your biography and this moment described in all its wonder by a talented writer. 

"... was standing there in kitchen after a day of work. He stood there peeling an orange skin listening to music. This was a ritual to him. The act of peeling was like taking off a layer of burden after returning home...."

This visualization makes any ordinary moment special. You will perhaps be able to find more focus in the act at hand, knowing that it is a story in your biography. Or you could imagine yourself as part of a movie. The present moment then becomes a part of a scene which people are paying to watch. You will thus have more incentive to be focused in the present.

I love this technique. It makes me feel good about my life. It attaches romance to every moment of my existence. Living the life becomes a performance, in a good way. You become the stars of this show. It then becomes important to put up a nice act. Smile, indulge in the moment and let the audience feel they are watching a performer who is taken over by her character. You take a form larger than your life itself. 

And in specific situations?

1. Reading

Problem: You are looking at the words but not really reading them. Often you turn pages but completely forget what happened earlier. Or you are stuck on a single page for an hour. 

Solution: When I notice that this is happening to me, I immediately stop myself and take a deep breath. Then, I imagine the scene when the words were first penned down by the author. I see the creation of the scene in the author's head, as he leans back in his chair, playing with his pen, brows furrowed and suddenly his eyes widen. He leans forward and writes down the exact words you are reading. I imagine the sense of elation, movement and progress he must have felt. And because I imagine it, sometimes I also experience that same feeling. 

For example, you can imagine me writing these words. Where am I? What time of the day could it be? Perhaps it is early Saturday morning and I am sitting in my boxer shorts. You imagine that at this stage I must have paused for a few seconds to decide what to write next....and so on.

It is tough to keep up with this technique since it is intense. But, it can serve as a way to bring back your focus to the book/article at hand and improve your reading experience multi-fold.
The same method can be applied to finding focus and appreciating the art in front of us while watching a movie, listening to music etc.

2. Exercising / Playing a sport

This is a new habit of mine (as I described in this post). I try to visualize the muscles grinding against each other. I feel the muscles being used at those moment and picture them strengthening and gaining volume (I have no idea if anything that I just said is what happens when you exercise, but I visualize it nevertheless). I feel the sweat dripping off of my back. I try to be there. It is not always possible but sometimes, yes. 

3. Creating

I thought about this long and hard, drifted off for a little while and then came back typing furiously (side note: you can imagine me doing that and enjoy reading this even more). Finding focus in creation comes from creation itself. It is one of those things that snowballs into a phenomenon where you are constantly in the zone by the sheer effect of having written/painted/clicked... something.

And if you need inspiration to get started, just take note of the present moment and how you arrived here. It will tell you enough to get going. Go back and see the first sentence of this point. This is exactly what I did when I was stuck beyond #2. 

4. Having a conversation

I have a thing I do sometimes in the middle of conversations. I look around and observe the set. Then I look into the distance and wonder. I wonder how we would look to a person from far away. Or to a novelist with us being one of the characters he is describing. I have mentioned one such moment in a post on Spiti Valley ( "I wish I could have seen ourselves from a hill 500 metres away with a binocular. That would have been cool." ). Once this is done, you would find a renewed vigor and a sense of amazement in your attitude towards the friend in front of you. Ironically, this momentary zoning out will give you more focus and enthusiasm towards the conversation you are having.

Another thing I have noticed is that people who are focused command respect and awe. Or maybe they do to me. If I find someone practicing their craft as if there is nothing else, I am immediately attracted towards them. An apt example of this comes from a movie about golf - The Greatest Game Ever Played. I won't spoil it for you but if you haven't watched the movie yet, go and do it. You'll identify the scene which I am referring to. 

Try and give this technique a shot. Perhaps, like having a perfect day a week, you could have a romantic's focus day. And unlike the former, this is much less overwhelming to practice daily.

Let me know if it works for you. All the best!

Living One Perfect Day a Week

Last night, I lay awake in bed with a sickening feeling in my stomach that everything I am doing right now is going to fail. It made my head hurt and I couldn't sleep. I doubted my decisions and imagined all the worst case scenarios. 

Then morning came.

Like a bad habit, my first instinct was to look at my phone to check messages, social media, etc. For me, that's not the best way to start the day. I pondered upon the good habits I have developed (ref: Start With Art) and want to develop (Meditation). And during this reflection, I had an insight: 

What would my perfect day look like? And once that is figured out, can I live that day, today?

I don't need to do this everyday. But, just for today, I would live a perfect day of my life. The definition of perfect day for me is: Attaining maximum contentment within the practical constraints of the present situation.

So, I listed out all the things that would pass my test to become an ingredient in my perfect day. Here's my list of things I want to do:

  • Wake up and not look at the phone (Failed)
  • Exercise for 10 minutes (Success)
  • Eat a fruit (Success - Watermelon)
  • Read for 45 minutes (Success - Einstein: His Life and Universe)
  • Write something original and publish it (If you are reading this, then Success)
  • Meditate for 15 minutes
  • Work
  • Go out in the evening, get some air, run errands
  • Work
  • Learn something new - a language/skill/work related
  • Find a nice new music album
  • Chill with the friends and partner
  • Have a beer or two while listening to that nice new album
  • Indulge in dreamy conversation

Points to note: 

  1. Failing to do a certain activity is OK. This is an aspirational list, not a mandatory one. (As you can see, I failed my first activity outright, but that's alright. The critical thing is to get back in the game.)
  2. The perfect day doesn't mean doing the most things you can. Go back to the definition. If, at the moment of your life, the perfect day means sleeping in all day, then by all means. The key is to be deliberate about that decision.
  3. A tip - Add an amount to your activity (15 minutes, 3 reps, etc.). You must have heard of TAG - Time and Amount goals and how they affect the chances of your accomplishing that goal. Well, this is pretty much what that is. 
  4. The constraint of our daily life is our friend. Do whatever is possible within its scope. 
  5. 'Once a week' is an out of the blue recommendation since it makes for a good title. Find your own frequency.

The reason I am doing this is to feel more in control of my life, even if for just one day. I don't yet know the full effect of this but I imagine that if we feel like shit and want a way to get things in order again, this might serve the purpose. I am about halfway done with my day. Let's see how the rest of it goes. So far, all good.

I hope you find it useful and I would love to hear your experiences with this technique. All the best! 

Cover Image via Unsplash

Start With Art

Over the past few weeks, I have formed two new habits to kick-start my day. One of them is Exercising. I had tried it before, but I was never disciplined. Two things have helped in changing that: 

  • I have a designated trigger to exercise - brushing my teeth. Choosing a daily activity as a trigger to another one is a proven technique to form a new habit. As soon as I am done brushing, I know that the next thing I have to do is exercise. There is no struggle to find the time or the right mood, since the moment after brushing arrives every day.

Recommended reading on forming new habits: Leo Babauta's book Zen Habits.

  • I ignore my mind - What I mean by this is that I get on the exercise mat on an autopilot mode. I don't let my mind rationalise and tell me to skip a day. There are days when it tells me that I am tired or taking a break just this one day wouldn't hurt. But, I have learnt to ignore it. It sounds simple, but is powerful. I have written about it earlier in the post The One skill to stick to your resolutions.

My exercise regime isn't too fancy by any measure. It resembles the popular 7-minute workout with a fair measure of stretching exercises on top. Additionally, I do a few stretches specifically for my upper back since I spend most of my waking hours on a chair.

But, this post is not about exercising. It is about what I do next - 

I read a book.

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it has become one of the most important activities of my day. I call this start with art - Begin your day with reading a good book for whatever amount of time you can spare. I do it for about an hour and it has improved my life considerably. Allow me to explain how.

A good book fills me with inspiration and a desire to do something great myself. There have been many times when I read a page or two and the sheer beauty of the language spurred me on to write something of my own. I would then promptly close the book and sit down to write at a furious pace. New ideas would crash against the walls of my brain racing each other to be the first ones to appear on the blank page. 

Reading a nice book lifts you up and propels you into action. I recommend reading good literature in the morning. Life stories of great men and women isn't a bad choice either.

You could have chosen 'doing' versus 'consuming' art. If you can do that, go for it. But, my morning reading is like a cup of coffee which flicks on a light inside me. This 'consumption' makes the 'doing' easier.

The end of my exercise triggers the start with art. And my sheer love for reading has come in handy to form this habit. If you need suggestions, here's my reading list.

Give it a shot. You have everything to gain. And do tell if it works for you. Do you find yourself filled with more energy and endeavor to grab the day by its balls and carpe the fucking diem? I would love to hear if you have any other method to start the day that works for you.

Cover Image via Unsplash

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