We are living beings, not binary code

We are living beings, not binary code

In today’s world, one of the things that I am most conscious about is the need to connect with the land. In my case, that means forests. Urban living has ripped out the connection we all had with the earth and left us with a lifestyle which is deceptive and artificial. Millennials are addicted to tech gadgets, not to the sound of birdsong early in the morning. Many have never smelled the first rain on parched earth, a perfume which the Attars (perfume makers) of old captured in an Atar (perfume) called Atar-e-Gil or Mitti Atar. Many don’t know the feel of good loamy soil in their hands or the pleasure of planting a tree and then watching it take root, grow and flower, over the weeks. For many eggs come from the grocery store, not from chickens with a personality and clear likes and dislikes of places and people, which they don’t hesitate to make known. I can go on but this will suffice. I believe it is critically important for us to change that and get people to smell the earth, listen to the forest and feel a sense of companionship with those who inhabit the earth with us. As we are headed into global warming and environmental destruction, I can’t help but feel that this is because most of us don’t even know what we are losing or what an unspoiled environment looks and feels like. What we don’t understand, we fear and what we fear, we destroy.

All through my childhood and youth, 1960’s & 70’s, I spent as much time in the forests as I could which enabled me to indulge my deep and abiding interest in wildlife and ecology. I had three of the best teachers that one could hope for to learn jungle craft from. People who loved the forests, had a wealth of knowledge about them and had the patience and affection to convey it to a young boy. They were Capt. Nadir Tyabji, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and my dear Uncle Rama (Venkat Rama Reddy). All were more than twenty years my senior but that has always been my situation, friends who are older and wiser from whom I learn all the time. I owe them a debt of gratitude and remember them with boundless respect and love. They invested countless hours in me for no material return and taught me lessons which fall into place to this day, fifty years later. It is a very rare privilege to have mentors like them and I am forever grateful.

From Nadir uncle I learnt to observe quietly without disturbing what I was looking at. I learnt from him the amazing variety of living beings that live in harmony with one another in a small little pond. I learnt a lot about birds, their nesting habits, their camouflage techniques and that the term, ‘free as a bird’ is a figment of the imagination. Birds are often so tied down to their environment, often a single species of tree, that if that tree dies, so does the bird. Out of this, I learnt to appreciate not one or two selected creatures but the whole spectrum of trees, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that make up our environment. This was at a time when to get to the nearest pond with some undisturbed rocks and bush around it, took all of ten minutes walking.

I was able to appreciate the importance of not upsetting this balance and what happens when in our endless greed we thoughtlessly destroy our environment. I saw that pond, the rocks and scrub forest around it, listened to the cooing of doves in the trees, saw the jacana with her chicks skipping on the lily pads. I saw the mongoose come out of her den in the rocks and look at me, unafraid because she had seen me so often and knew that I posed no threat to her babies. I heard the cawing of crows and the endless chatter of sparrows. I saw the hoopoe swoop down from the sky onto a patch of grass and dig for worms with his sharp beak, raising his crown from time to time, to remind the world of who he is. Some years later when I returned to Hyderabad, I tried to visit that pond. I say tried to visit because to be able to visit, the object of your visit needs to be there. It wasn’t. The rocks had been blasted to make concrete. The pond had been filled in, the trees cut, the grass ground underfoot into dust. The mongoose, the jacana, the doves and hoopoe, even the crows and sparrows, all gone, never to return. What I saw was a tar road, a concrete high-rise building with climate control (meaning, no windows) and the whir of traffic. Was that the worst of it or was it that there was nobody to mourn their passing?

From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung (we called him Nawabsab) I learnt the basics of self defense, shooting, training dogs and horses and jungle craft. He taught me how to train dogs for tracking, retrieving and guarding. I was learning from a man who had an international standing in his art and I was very conscious of it. What I was also learning in the process of training dogs and horses, which I was not conscious of then, was about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes and emotions. Dogs react to facial expressions and unconscious movements and mannerisms and their performance depends on the clarity with which a command is given. To the man, it may appear that the command is the word alone. But to the dog it is a combination of sound, expression and the slightest movement all together as one. So, if you are not conscious of yourself, then your dog will always be confused because your command comes across to him differently each time. Today, when I teach presentation skills or facilitate meetings I recall these lessons in self-awareness and the power of synchronizing yourself in thought, word and action. Dogs taught me how to deal with people.

Uncle Rama taught me more than I can possibly list here. He taught me the meaning of responsibility and accountability. He taught me to take care of myself in a hostile environment. He taught me to be at peace with the forest, to connect with the stars and to respect the animals we occasionally shot for the table. Hunting was not a sport. It was something you did only for necessity and with a sense of deep thankfulness for the fact that the animal gave its life for you. Hunting was a contest between man with his weak senses and a good rifle and the animal with his speed of response, his highly tuned senses, his intuition and his enormous knowledge of his environment. It was not only an equal contest but was usually in favor of the animal. That is when you played fair. This means that you tracked the animal on foot, in daylight. Not when you used a high-powered searchlight to blind it in the night and then did target practice. That I was taught, is the most despicable, dishonorable and shameless thing that you could do. And so, I never did it.

All these were ostensibly lessons in anything but work. But in reality, they were lessons in character building, life skills, influencing, social dynamics, self-awareness and understanding which have stood me in very good stead all through my life and which are the backbone of my profession of leadership training.

I became very skilled in jungle craft and could stalk game in silence over long distances. I could camouflage myself and stay hidden and unobserved and walk a trail and tell the signs of creatures that had walked that path ahead of me. The more I knew about an animal the more likely I was to be able to track it down and shoot it. So, I studied, talked to people who were knowledgeable, and observed. My observation became very good and so did my ability to listen to and analyze sounds. In the Indian forests, home to large and potentially dangerous mammals, this knowledge can often mean the difference between life and death. As I learned more about forests, I enjoyed my time in the forests even more and looked forward to the holidays when I would get on a bus and travel to Nirmal, change buses for Khanapur and Pembi and then walk the last four kilometers to Sethpalli.

Uncle Rama was like a father to me and he would give me a royal welcome. He used to call me Nawab and treated me like a king. That I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy meant nothing to him. To him I was his friend, who he treated as an equal. As soon as I arrived, covered in dust, I would go off to the well at the edge of the Tamarind trees, which shaded the house on the riverbank. There I would stand in my underwear and one of the farm workers (usually Shivaiyya, my Gond tracker friend) would draw water in a bucket from the well and pour it over my head. Lots of soap, more water flooded over my head, and I would be clean as two whistles. Dressed in a lungi and banyan, I would sit on the charpoy opposite Uncle Rama under one of the Tamarind trees and he would tell me all that had happened since my last visit. While this was going on, his cook would bring a huge bowl of fried Chital meat and I would eat and listen to him. I had a vast capacity for eating meat and tender Chital was my absolute favorite. Uncle Rama knew that I was Muslim and would not eat anything not slaughtered in the Islamic way. So, he used to take one of his Muslim workers, Noorullah, with him when he went hunting. Once the animal was down, Noorullah would go and slaughter it by cutting the throat and saying: Bismillahi Allahu Akbar. Such was the consideration we were taught to observe for one another.

I loved jungles. I loved hunting and I loved Uncle Rama above all else. So, every holiday I would go off to Sethpalli. Sometimes Uncle Rama would be in town (Hyderabad) at the time my holidays were about to begin. He would call and say, “Kya Nawab, chalna hai?” And off we went. He had a BSA motorcycle (350 cc). He would ride with a .12 bore shotgun slung across his chest and a bandolier of cartridges and I would ride behind him with a .22 bore rifle slung across my back.

How can I describe the excitement as I rode behind Uncle Rama with the wind in my face? Those were the days before helmets were invented; before there were any Naxalites in those forests and before it became illegal to hunt. So off we would go from Hyderabad to Sethpalli, via Nirmal and Khanapur. All names that conjure up wonderful memories of a childhood that today no child can even dream of. This is the price we have paid for what we like to call ‘development’.

As we went along, Uncle Rama would stop by a road side water tank. These tanks were an integral part of the irrigation network of Telangana, which does not see too much rain. Every village had its tank. When maintained, they harvested rain water, enhanced the water table in the village and provided water to irrigate the fields so that in most years people were able to harvest two crops. The tanks had fish and attracted water birds, both of which added to the villager’s diet. And they were very beautiful. Today they have been allowed to silt up. The dams are ruined. The entire irrigation system has been allowed to collapse with nothing else to replace it. Some of them have been encroached upon and people have built houses and shops on the tank bed, which is illegal of course. Alas, when the grease hits the palm in India, anything is possible. The result is drought, uncultivated lands and in years when the monsoon fails, starvation, and farmer suicides.

Uncle Rama would park his motorcycle by the roadside and we would get off, un-sling the guns and sneak up the embankment of the nearby water tank. There, sure enough, we would find, Brahminy, Pollard, Comb (Nakta) ducks, or Teals. All floating in the reeds and feeding in the shallows. Uncle Rama was a master tracker and I learnt from him. We would crawl along the bank, just below the top, careful not to show a silhouette and when we were in range, I would fire first and he would take the flying shots as the ducks rose in flight. Usually, we would get our dinner before we reached home. We would arrive at the farm with the motorcycle festooned with ducks on either side.

The villagers also hunt ducks. The difference is they do it without firearms. In this part of the world, they don’t even have any bows and arrows, catapults, or any other throwing weapons. What they do is to take a round pot with a mouth big enough for the head of the hunter to go through and make two holes in it to see through. They then seal the holes and the mouth of the pot and float it among the reeds where ducks take shelter in the night. After a couple of days, the ducks get used to seeing the pot in their midst. Then on a moonless night, the hunter creeps up quietly, enters the water and inserts his head into the pot, making sure that his body is completely submerged. He looks through the holes in the pot and breathes the air trapped in the pot. To the ducks, it is still the same pot floating among the reeds. Then the hunter very quietly and gently approaches a duck and grabs its legs under the water, yanking it down below the surface. Done expertly, the duck simply disappears without trace. The man transfers the duck to his other hand and then approaches the next duck to yank it to its watery end. The only thing limiting him is the number of duck legs he can hold in one hand. On a good day, getting five or six ducks is not difficult. Some hunters wear a belt to which they attach all underwater ducks which considerably increases their game bag. These ducks were a valuable addition of protein in their diet as well as a means of earning some money. Human ingenuity is truly the best resource we have.

Khanapur was the first watering hole. The first serious one that is. We would stop for tea at one of the many road-side Dhabas and Uncle Rama would have fun talking to the owner in fluent Telugu only to see the look of total surprise on his face. Uncle Rama, due to his English mother, was himself white with blond hair. So, people naturally took him to be British. And when he spoke colloquial Telugu and Urdu fluently, they were shocked.

In Khanapur we would stop at his house which he never actually finished building. He’d started it in the hope that his family would live there with him. But his wife, a wonderful, cultured lady did not fancy the village life, so he never finished the house. It was still livable though and we would stop there for lunch. After lunch he would pull out a big bottle with a viscous liquid that looked like old engine oil. What it contained was the most delicious honey that I have ever eaten. Fifty years later that statement still holds true. It was so black and viscous because it was so old and high in sugar content that it was practically solid. This honey with butter was the dessert…blissssssssssssssssssss, which was followed by two hours of sound sleep. The idea was to wait for the heat of the afternoon to lessen before travelling. In summer the temperatures there would be in the high forties (north of 115 F), even though we were in the middle of the forest. To travel in that heat (especially on a motorcycle) was a good way to get sunstroke. All life comes to a standstill at midday and then people start to move again once the sun is on its way to rising in America.

In the evening, after a cup of tea we would leave for Sethpalli, our final destination, sometimes in the Jeep that Uncle Rama used to cache in Khanapur, or on the motorbike. This drive was the most exciting part of the whole trip as the road went through thick forests. Much of it teak plantations. Some original forest. A lot of bamboo thickets and Ber bushes; favorite haunts of wildlife ranging from Jungle Fowl who eat the berries and seed, to Gaur which graze on tender bamboo shoots to tigers who like to lie up in the shade of the bamboo which is not deciduous and remains green in the summer. A good place to look for tigers is bamboo bordering any small creek or even a dry stream bed (Nalla). Tigers love to lie in the relatively cool sand or in the water all through the heat of the day, shaded from the sun and prying eyes by the thick bamboo fronds.

The semi-deciduous forests of the Satpura Range are relatively open without much undergrowth. One of the reasons for this is also the annual burning that happens even though it is illegal. Shepherds and others set fire to the undergrowth and this burns off all the dry leaves on the forest floor causing minor damage to the large trees. That leaves the place open for the growth of new grass and shrubs. Deer and Gaur love this new growth as also the ash from the burnt logs which they come to eat. The ash is also excellent manure for the new growth and it grows lush and thick. As we drove through the evening, rapidly turning to night, we would often see herds of Chital, Nilgai, the occasional Sambar (they usually start moving much later after moonset) and Gaur lying or feeding in the open forest glades. Most were so used to the sound of traffic that as long as the vehicle was moving, they would simply look up to see what it was and then continue on with whatever they were doing. But if the vehicle stopped, they would immediately be alarmed and start to move away.

Uncle Rama used these trips to teach me from his vast knowledge of jungle lore. I learnt to distinguish between a male and female animal. To recognize one that was pregnant or nursing. To recognize their different moods and what the calls meant. Some raised in alarm, the belling of a Sambar; the barking of the Cheetal, hooting of the Langur sentinel who sees the danger before anyone else and on whose vigilance, they all depend. I learnt the meaning of a deer staring in concentration at one thicket and then stamping his fore hoof a couple of times before barking alarm. By listening to the belling of a Sambar in the night, I learnt to tell which direction he was looking in and how far he was from me. In forests that had many tigers and leopards, this was a very useful skill indeed.

So many things to learn. I learnt. I learnt. I learnt. And I loved every minute of it.

The big challenge we have today is to teach our children these lessons and help them to connect to the earth, to its inhabitants and to each other. We are living beings, not binary code. The earth is not at our mercy but waits and watches to see what we do. Then it will do what it has done in the past, to protect what is beneficial and to heal itself by ridding itself of that which is harmful. Our call to define ourselves.
Advice to a young friend going to university

Advice to a young friend going to university

Five things to keep in mind:

1.      Always be thankful. It is true that we succeed by our own efforts but it is good to remember that some of them were made standing on someone else’s shoulders.  And they helped us when they didn’t need us and without expectation of reward. Don’t forget them because without them you would still be crawling. The biggest fallacy is the so-called ‘self-made man or woman.’ There’s no such thing. We are all the products of the Grace of God, of our time, environment, nation, family, friends – of all those who stopped by to lend a hand. To every one of them we owe a debt which must be repaid. So always be thankful and express thanks. People are not mind readers and even mind readers like to hear it from you. So tell them. Thankfulness increases blessings, opens new doors, inspires people to do things for you and increases your circle of influence. Thankfulness also fills your own heart with joy. Try it and see.

2.     Never compromise your legacy. Never lose sight of your purpose. Ask, ‘Why am I here?’ Write it down and stick it on your wall. Look at it every morning and re-dedicate yourself to that. Stick to that. There will be times when all sorts of other things will seek priority. Different issues will demand importance. Friends will pull in various directions. At such times look at your purpose and know that everything else must be subordinated to that if you are serious about success. Ask, ‘What do I want to be remembered for?’ Focus is the art of ignoring.

3.     Everyone has friends. The worst of them and the best of them, all have friends. Ask Mother Teresa and ask any drug dealer or pickpocket. They all have friends. The key is to have the right kind of friends. Who is the right friend? Someone you can look up to. Someone you can learn from. Someone who challenges you to be your best. Someone who tells you what you need to hear, not only what you want to hear. So it is not how many friends you have but who those friends are, which is important. Also ask, ‘What kind of friend am I to my friends?’ Do you measure up to the same criteria? Being a leader means to take hard decisions and not follow the herd. Sheep have lots of company all the way to the abattoir.

4.     No one walks alone: Every one of us is a reflection of his family, community, nation and humanity. We are never alone. Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and character. Character is the tree and fame is its shadow. But of the two only the tree is real. So judge every action not only by whether it pleases you but by how it will reflect on your parents, family and nation. And most importantly how it reflects on humanity. We are human because of our values alone. That is what distinguishes us from animals. So focus on values. Compassion supercedes them all. Do to others better than what you would have them do to you. That is the Platinum Rule. A picture is worth a thousand words. An action is worth a million.

5.     Finally remember that popularity doesn’t matter: So never buckle under the pressure of popularity. It doesn’t matter at all. Dr. Rene Favaloro invented the technique and performed the first bypass surgery in 1967. Michael Jackson began his solo career in 1971 (he made his debut in 1964). Who was more popular? Whose contribution has more value? So think contribution, not popularity. In our world today, if you stand up against injustice, oppression, cruelty and discrimination, you will be very unpopular. But the world owes a debt of gratitude to those who do. Otherwise oppressors would rule unchallenged. Peace as defined by oppressors has always been, ‘Absence of resistance to my oppression.’ All those who resisted were given the honorifics of ‘insurgent, terrorist, traitor etc.’ But history is witness that it is thanks to those who disturbed that peace that we abolished slavery, have human dignity and continue to fight for freedom. So it is not whether you won or lost which matters. What matters is which side you fought on. Pick your side for you will be known by it. That is your signature.

I wish you every great dream in life and the courage to make it come true.

Parenting can’t be outsourced

Parenting can’t be outsourced

The biggest challenge of parenting is to accept that we are facing a world that is very different from the one we grew up in. This is true irrespective of which country you live in with the additional complexity of a rapid destruction of walls between cultures. The truth is that your solutions don’t work today and your children know this better than anyone else. Yet you still have the challenge to inspire, support and teach them. Your challenge is to prepare them for a world that you know nothing about. This can be seen as positive or negative depending on your point of view but one thing is certain and that is, it will not leave you untouched.
The major Global Changes that we face are:
Information exchange

Thanks mainly to the internet and to global TV channels we are in an information overload phase. We don’t suffer from lack of information but from a surfeit of it – easily available at the click of a mouse. What is missing is the ability to discern, to sift, to pick the nuggets. What is missing is the ability to know what to do with what we read or see. What is missing is the ability to connect the dots to complete the picture. What is missing is the ability to recognize the reality and to put things in perspective so that we can differentiate between real information and propaganda. What is missing is the ability to respond positively and powerfully to ensure that the dissenting voice is also heard in the cacophony of the dominant discourse.
Easy information exchange has also lowered and in many cases wiped out the entry barriers into technologies and business areas. This opens new opportunities for entrepreneurs provided they know how to use them. It is a challenge for parents to guide their children in ways that enable them not only to make sense of what they see and read but to actually leverage it for themselves and others.
The information exchange also has a darker side with every evil that happens in the world getting instant limelight. The conscious self is bombarded daily with images which at one time would have sent us into depression but which leave us untouched and unmoved today. This desensitization of the heart, the deadening of compassion, making the horrific mundane is the result of constant exposure to cruelty, oppression and bloodshed. Like the nurse in the operating theatre or the butcher in the abattoir, the sight of another’s suffering leaves us untouched. The Salaf used to be very concerned with exposing oneself to things that harden the heart. Imam Al-Ghazali used to say that one should not mention death while eating because if the heart is not deadened then you will not be able to eat. And if you are able to eat then it will become evident to everyone that your heart is dead. I don’t think we bother with such niceties anymore because the condition of our hearts is apparently not of any consequence to us. The challenge that parents have is to guide children such that their hearts don’t harden and show them how they can help those in need. Hidden in this is also the real danger of radicalization of youth and their falling into the trap of those who seek to recruit them for cannon fodder. It is our challenge to help them to retain perspective, show them how they can positively contribute and stay away from all extremist positions. But to do all that we need to check what state our own hearts are in for only the seeing can guide the blind.
Technology empowers/threatens

The second challenge we face is that of technology. Like rain, it is a part of our lives. You either get wet or you learn to use an umbrella. The smart phone, the computer, social networking and the ever present Google. Google maps automatically gives me driving directions to the masjid on Fridays whether or not I ask for them. It tells me if a flight that I am booked on is late or not. It even tells me when I need to leave for the airport, even when I have not asked for this information or informed it about my present location. It knows without being told. So how difficult is it to believe that Allah, who created the creator of Google and his brain, also knows?
Technology takes away the drudgery and monotony. It adds value and makes life easy. But at the same time it increases distraction, creates a false sense of satisfaction and speed. People feel satisfied with posting likes on Facebook and making favorites on Twitter as if they actually accomplished something. They forget that a million likes don’t put a piece of bread into the mouth of the starving child or save it from the bullet of a sniper. Instant gratification – the most dominant sign of an immature intellect – is one of the legacies of technology, albeit unintentional. We forget that if you want results you have to work very hard at the right things; not merely click a mouse or tap a touch screen. This results in unjustified frustration and the millennial personality is born. People who are literally disinterested in the future. What can you hope for with respect to creating a legacy from those whose main interest is the next sensation?
We have a mentality that always seeks more and more excitement. Steve Irvin (Crocodile Hunter) is a good example of this and its unwitting result – taking closer and closer chances with dangerous animals until one day the inevitable happened. But the result is that today if you want to make an animal encounter show, until you can put your head into a lion’s mouth and obviously come out alive, the producers won’t even look at you. And the value of doing so? Well, when you measure everything in terms of TRP ratings, that is perfectly clear, isn’t it?
Speed of response that technology enables is both a competitive advantage and a threat. Our own response to events has to be hugely faster than our parents’ needed to be because every event is instantly global news. The repercussions of the thoughtless word are also serious and in some cases severe. But what remains constant is that artificial intelligence is not the same as natural and technology doesn’t replace wisdom. We still need the human intellect to interpret the event and color the picture to see the whole scene.
Cultural influence

As I mentioned, the influence of other cultures is so invasive and powerful that merely trying to guard against it by prohibiting TV is futile. Children are exposed to other cultures all through their day. What needs to be done is to demonstrate to them the value of our culture in such a way as to enable them to take pride in it, while still respecting other cultures. This is essential because the usual approach of running down everything else creates walls and doesn’t promote cross cultural understanding. How to learn without becoming judgmental while retaining our own sense of right and wrong? This is a complex issue and something that needs to be learnt before one can teach it. The most critical part of this is to retain an open mind while being clear about the boundaries of Islam. One must be confident without becoming bigoted. This is critical to presenting Islam also because you can’t present an alternate perspective without understanding and respecting the perspective of your partner.  
The modern world has also created myriad new career options which bring with them new dilemmas & questions. In short your life history doesn’t work anymore. Our challenge is to prepare them for a world that we know nothing about. But you signed up for that job when you had a child.
Just to give you a small peek at what I mean please consider the following:
The top 10 – in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. In the year 2000, Google (founded 1998 but public in 2004), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), YouTube (2005) and Whatsapp (2009) didn’t exist. We all lived in a world without the things we consider critical to survival today. And for the most part we lived happily. These things apart from their nuisance value do have some positive uses, create jobs and hugely influence our perception the world, our social behavior, our buying preferences, who we look up to and who we look down on. Today it is thanks only to Facebook and YouTube that a lot of modern scholars have more popularity than Imam Ahmed and Imam Abu Hanifa had in their days. It is not the depth of their knowledge but our slavery to these technologies that has colored our perception such that the first thing people ask is, ‘How many videos does he have on YouTube?’ As if that is one of the questions of the Day of Judgment.
These technologies and the gadgets they come in, take up huge amounts of our time and create anxiety, stress and anguish over pointless things. They rule our hearts and minds if we allow them to. And they make some very smart people insane amounts of money at our expense. How are we going to explain the dangers of all this to our children when we are ourselves the victims of these technologies? The solution is not discarding them. That would be like pretending it was not raining when it was. You would only get wet. Also as I mentioned there are positive aspects to them which we can and must use. The key is to be able to differentiate and use, not become the used and manipulated. Our challenge is to prepare children for challenges that don’t exist yet using technologies that haven’t been invented. The reality is that today’s solution is often tomorrow’s problem. If you need a reminder, think of plastics. There are many here who remember a plastic free world and the delight with which we welcomed plastics when they came into our lives. As they say, the rest is history.
The total amount of technical information is doubling every two years. This means that for a student in a 4 year course, what he learnt in Year – 1 is already outdated in Year – 3. So what is the use of our traditional teaching – both what we teach and how we do it needs to change. Frankly it doesn’t need to change; it needs a decent burial and a new system needs to be born. Finland, which is famous for its educational system has decided to stop teaching subjects completely and teach application instead. I had proposed that in 2002 in my vision statement for the SBA. Without understanding application we have the pathetic situation of our children going to school for 15 years and coming out completely innocent of anything remotely useful. Their minds are filled with disconnected pieces of information that’s perhaps individually useful but because they never learnt the relationships or how to use that information in real life, they lose all interest in the subject itself. In the real world they are completely incapable of survival itself, let alone being able to influence, guide, command or even earn a decent living. Fifteen years of schooling only puts them on the threshold of another decade perhaps of studying to qualify to stand in the line for a job.
What never ceases to amaze me is how the insanity of it doesn’t strike anyone and we still continue to donate serious amounts of money to the system that does nothing for us. Those who send their children to big name schools with high fees, ask your child what he or she learned that can help them to survive one week on their own and you will know what your money bought for you. Ask if your money bought you good manners, compassion, the ability to have an intelligent conversation, write a decent letter or cook a decent meal; let alone Taqwa, Ta’alluq Ma’Allah, respect for the Sunnah, confidence in Islam or in their own culture. What it probably did buy you is recalcitrant attitudes, arrogance, embracing the worst values of the West instead of the best, enslavement to gadgets and brands and a burning desire to go to Europe or America to study immediately after graduating from school but at your expense and not on their own merit. An entitlement mentality that is the cancer which is at the root of all degeneration and family disputes, especially in business families. Most sadly it probably also bought an attitude of looking down on others including in many cases, their own parents who pay their bills. And to think of it, none of this was promised in the prospectus when you put your child in the school, was it? Talk about the Aha! Experience and getting value for your money!
So what to do? Solution: Win the RACE. What race? RACE is my acronym for what you need to do to deal with the challenge of raising children you can be proud of. RACE stands for Read, Anticipate, Create and Execute.
Reading has become a redundancy and this is the root cause of most of our problems. Not reading disconnects us from our own history, our culture, religion and from Allah. Reading enables us to know what is happening, to put it in perspective and to anticipate problems and opportunities – two names for the same thing. So ask yourself how many books you read every month. Ignorance is not bliss. It is ugly and shameful. So start reading. Read and encourage your children to read. Read and analyze and discuss and debate. See what questions they ask. The questions are much more important than answers. Let powerful questions arise in the mind and answer them yourself or find others who can answer them. Cultivate the company of those who read and who have intelligent conversations – not Gheeba (backbiting and slander) disguised as social talk. Cultivate the company of scholars of all kinds of knowledge. Go to them and take your children with you. Don’t worry if your children tell you that they can’t understand anything that is being said. That is a sign of the result of the kind of upbringing you gave them and what they failed to learn in school. Consider it a sign of sickness. That is why you took them there, to stretch their minds and to expose them to the expanse of knowledge. What you hear today and don’t understand gets stored in the memory and comes to your aid years later at unexpected moments. You need to change your habits and your social life. If your social life consists of attending random weddings and re-eating biryani then none of what I have said will be possible. You have to do first what you want your children to do. Make no mistake. To give you must first have.

Learn to read the signs both in your children and in the environment and prepare for them by being proactive. Combative and harsh attitudes usually get negative results. You need to be able to reason and convince, not force. To reason and convince you need to have knowledge and be convinced yourself. Brings us back to reading. Another great resource is the company of wise people. Wisdom begins with Taqwa so people who disobey Allah by definition can’t be wise, though they may have some skills or some specific knowledge. Seek the company of the Muttaqoon who obey Allah and follow the Sunnah of His Messenger.
Monitor your conversations. Monitor your company. Who do you meet with your children? Who are your children exposed to? What are they likely to learn from them? Make sure you keep the right company and expose your children to the right company. Most children today spend time with their own age groups. The question is, what can a fifteen year old teach another fifteen year old? Children need the company of wise and knowledgeable elders to learn life skills. This is how mammals learn – from elders. Sohbat say Sahaba banay. The Sahaba learnt from the Sohabt (companionship) of the Prophet. Our children are starved of the Sohbat of wise elders and the tragedy is that most are not even aware of what they are losing.

Now that you have an idea of the challenges ahead and you have anticipated how some of them are likely to touch you and your children, create solutions. Teach tools because your answers don’t work anymore. Teach tools because they are timeless and can be applied to all kinds of problems. Among the most important tools are:
1.    How to connect to Allah
2.    The power of dua
3.    Disciplined living
4.    Drive for excellence
5.    Managing money – earn/not spend
6.    Take ownership – no excuses
7.    Structured thinking
8.    Focused reading
9.    Social graces and manners
10. Humility – No arrogance

Finally execute, implement, because only results can be banked, as the saying goes. You must create a schedule to impart these skills and knowledge to your children. Parenting is a contact sport. You can’t outsource it, no matter how competent the care taker. And remember that children listen with their eyes. If you don’t wake up for Fajr it is no good telling your child to pray Tahajjud. If you don’t read, the child will not read. And if he reads because his teacher inspires him to do so, soon he will know more than you and that is shameful. Remember you signed up to raise your children the day you decided to have them. Whatever you did until now, it is time to take stock and ask yourself what you need to change. It is eye opening if you ask your children what they learned from you. I began this series of lectures by asking you how many of you had one of their parents as their role model and you know the pathetic result. Ask if you want your children to think the same? If not, the time to change is now.
It is simply not enough to feed, clothe and gadgetize your children and then leave them to their own devices except to refill their bellies or accounts. You have to get serious with their upbringing.

For the children an even more critical message: Remember that one of the seven who Allah promised the shade of His Arsh on the day when there will be no shade except His, is the youth who grew up in obedience to Him. So this is a very critical time in your life. This is the power of the multiplier. During this stage every action of yours has a far higher reward than the reward of older people doing the same thing. Everything you do that is obedience of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger and every temptation you reject because it is against the order of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messengerwill take you closer to Allah, make your dua more accepted and be a witness for you on the Day of Judgement. This period of grace will end when you grow older. So focus on making the best of this time and don’t lose this period of grace to please some loser who is your friend. 
The effect of friends, both positive and negative can’t be overemphasized. It is huge. 
I constantly hear the lament after a final exam, ‘I only got so many marks.’ My question is, ‘’Why? Did they run out of stock?’ Their answer is, ‘Friends. My friends who I gave more time to than to my studies.’ 
I say to you, ‘Wake up! Convert your friend to your way of being or delete him from your list. You can’t afford losers as friends, no matter how cool they look. So get serious. We only live once. Let us live it right.’


Advertising is not about selling. It is about influencing; about kindling desire; about fueling passion. Advertising is about converting ‘want’ to ‘need.’ It is about mind steering. Advertising is powerful so it must be used responsibly.

Think of your favorite Ad. What does it seek to do?
Then ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’

Is it true that my value as a human being will increase because I wear a certain brand? Is it true that my possessions are a reflection of my worth?
Or are they a reflection of my character which drives my choices?

Choices that reflect my wisdom with respect to wealth, concern for others, compassion and morals.

What do you call someone who uses expensive products because he thinks they add value to him as a person?

I call him a person who doesn’t understand the basic principle in life – that possessions add cost; not value.

Advertising must be responsible. The foundation of responsibility is truth. Advertisements that seek to promote products which harm life, objectify women, promote drugs and addiction, are irresponsible, false and criminal. Alcohol destroys lives, cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer and you don’t need a naked woman on a couch to sell ice cream or chocolates or biscuits.

We must condemn such advertising which is neither original, nor artistic, nor attractive. It is harmful, corrupt and promotes evil.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls – I call upon you to support responsible, moral advertising and to fight against the irresponsible and the unethical.

Because in the end, it is not about them. It is about us.

Living Thoughtfully – Maximize your ROI


As I grow older I am aware of an ever increasing sense of urgency; a feeling that I have progressively less time left to leave behind a legacy that can be a credit to me. This sense of urgency has nothing to do with the fact that the reality of time running out is one that we all face. It has more to do with the desire to do something to maximize the benefit of the time that I have left. Naturally like all of us, I have no idea how much exactly is left, so all the more reason to act fast.

In this process, I developed a theory based on my own life experience which I call ‘Living Thoughtfully’. I believe that before we act, if we think about what we are about to do; the reasons for it, the possible effects of it and other alternatives that we may have and then ask ourselves, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ then we will be able to vastly improve our effectiveness.

I am Muslim and use the Qur’an and Sunnah as my basis for decision making. That is what I have used here as well. You, the reader, however will I hope, find these reflections both interesting and usable even if you are not Muslim, because integrity, morals, ethics and concern for others are universal values. I take them from the Word of Allah and the teachings of His Messenger because I believe that one day I will be held accountable before Allah for what I did.

In ‘Living Thoughtfully’ the most important matter is to check our intention. That is why one of the most important sayings of Muhammad (SAS), the Messenger of Allah is: ‘The reward of a deed is based on its intention.’ A bribe is after all a ‘gift’. The difference which makes one right and the other wrong is the intention. Imaam Nawawi, one of the most eminent scholars of Hadith, writing about the importance of intention, in his book – Ar Riyadhus Saleheen – said, ‘(Live with) the awareness of the intention in all that we say, in all that we do and in every situation that we find ourselves; whether visible or hidden.’

Imagine living with such a heightened sense of purpose that before a person says anything he asks himself why he is planning to say it, thinks of the effect his words are likely to have and takes responsibility for that. He does the same with every action of his and reflects on his contribution to any situation he is faced with.

If we behaved with such a tremendous sense of responsibility no matter what our position in life, what a wonderful world we would be able to create around us? Our problems of inequity, poverty, environmental degradation and moral bankruptcy can all be traced to one source – a lack of responsibility for our speech and actions. We lack concern. We must change this.

I contrast ‘Living Thoughtfully’ with the opposite, ‘living thoughtlessly’… just remaining alive, like a cow or a goat. Not that I have anything against cows or goats but would like to believe that I am different. I have called it ‘Maximizing ROI (Return on Investment) because our time, energy, money, emotions, thoughts, aspirations, desires and the choices we make are all investments into our lives, albeit sometimes (or for some of us, most of the time)unconscious.

It is important therefore that we stop to assess what the return on our investment is, especially as much of that investment is impossible to retrieve once it is made. Yet it will have consequences whether we like them or not. When we look around us we see that some people seem to accomplish far more than others, though all of us have the same amount of time. The others complain that they have ‘no time’ but if you ask them, ‘Can you tell me what you did yesterday and why was it important?’ they are not able for the most part even to recall what they did, let alone be able to say why it was important. The same thing is true of other resources which we have at our disposal, be it money, or network of people or access to education or anything else. It is my contention therefore that the secret of accomplishment lies not in the amount of time or resources that we have but in what we do with them. How we use them, leverage them, conserve them and spend them. The secret is in ‘Living Thoughtfully’.

Living Thoughtfully is not only about being goal focused but also about being aware and concerned about the effect of our actions. Of being conscious about the fact that while we need to accomplish our goals, we need to find ways of doing that without damaging, harming or oppressing others. Our problems today with global issues, be those related to wars, global warming, rapacious grasping of resources by those who have the power to do so and consequently more expenditure on military and weapons than on health, education and eradication of poverty; all relate to living thoughtlessly.

Living as if the consequences of our actions will not come home to roost on our own rafters. Just as they say, ‘When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, a tsunami is born in Indonesia’, whether we live thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, it has a profound, powerful and visible effect in all aspects of our lives. It is not possible to pollute the water of the lake we swim in without that pollution affecting us. That is the reason I believe that the most important thing for us to do and to teach our children to do, is to Live Thoughtfully.

With this in mind, I have delineated the elements of Living Thoughtfully and have suggested some attitudes that we should work on developing as well as some tools which I believe will be helpful in achieving our ends. I have used these tools personally and taught them for many years and know they work.In our modern commercial society we have reduced everything to its dollar value even where the matter has no monetary value as such but is critical to success in life. For example what is the monetary value of integrity? But we are all aware that the present financial crisis that the whole world is affected by is rooted in a lack of integrity at the highest levels of the economy and government. If the decision makers sitting in their ivory towers had been people of integrity we would not have been in this mess. Yet almost nobody speaks of the core reason for this situation.

Similarly we have reduced education, health care, food production and distribution, the care of the elderly and many such matters to businesses. I say ‘reduced’ because to me education is for life, not to make a living. Health care is about concern for the sick and a desire to alleviate their suffering as effectively and cheaply as possible; not about showing a decent ROI on the hospital’s balance sheet. Food production and distribution is about feeding those who are starving no matter where they may be and not about throwing wheat into the sea because otherwise it would depress global prices on commodity stock exchanges. Many organizations that spend in the name of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) are more concerned about the tax breaks they get for their spend; the fact that they spent nothing for social welfare prior to the tax breaks bearing mute testimony to the fact. What are we saying about ourselves as human beings when the death of people due to starvation has less value for us than the price of wheat and therefore the return on our futures trade? Do we
stop to reflect? Do we care? Yet we call ourselves civilized.

That is why I believe in and operate from the Islamic principle of accountability before Allah from whom nothing is hidden and to whom we will have to answer for all that we did or chose not to do. That is Islam. I am sharing this with you because this is my foundation when I speak about ‘Living Thoughtfully’; to live constantly with the awareness of accountability in my mind and so always strive to please Allah.

The 6 – Critical Elements

There are 6 critical elements to ‘Living Thoughtfully’:

1. Goals
Long term
Short term

2. Criteria

3. Reflection
What happened?
What do I learn?

4. Choices
In direct control
Through others

5. Risk
Long term

6. The Legacy
What do I want to be remembered for?

Let’s look at them individually.

1. Goals

As they say, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’; but that step must be on the right path and going in the right direction. What is the right path? The path that leads to the goal which you want to achieve. So before all else, comes the goal. We call it by many names, vision is one. But goal is what it is. Where are you headed? Where do you want to reach? The greater our clarity about this, the higher will be our energy and motivation to work towards it.

? Long term
? What is the vision?
? What is the result you want to achieve?
? Why does it excite you?
? Who else does it excite?
? What does the achieved state look like?

In order to get this clarity a good way is to imagine and draw what the achieved state will be like.

How different will it be from the current state? How beneficial will that difference be? Interestingly the bigger the difference, the more the benefit, the higher its power to pull us in that direction. I call this ‘Positive Stress’. It is like the head of water in a hydro-electric dam. The higher the head, the more its power to generate electricity. That is why it is in the very nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort.

Another benefit of clearly visualizing the achieved state, the goal, is that it gives us perspective. Perspective is the ability to hold two pictures in our mind simultaneously; where we are and where we want to go. The differential fuels growth.

Imagine being lost in a featureless desert or in a dense forest. If you want to find a way out, you will seek a high place, climb to the top of it and try to look for a way to get out. When you are standing on top of that hill and have now seen the lights of a village far in the distance, you will be able to chart a course to reach there. That is perspective.

At that time, you are able to see the two pictures; where you are now and where you want to go. This is essential in life because without perspective we will not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the goal and what needs to be done to achieve it.

This brings us to a challenge; ‘How can I make others dream my dream?’ The big reason is that almost anything worth dedicating our life to will require at least some others to also dedicate their lives to the achievement of that goal. That means two things: our goal must help them achieve their own personal goals and we need to be able to show them how this will happen. Inspiring others is therefore about allowing others into our mind and letting them see the pictures we are seeing and into our hearts and letting them feel what we are feeling. It’s all about connecting at various levels and that needs building trust.

It is when people love you and trust you that they are willing to be inspired by you and to dedicate their lives to enable you to make your dream come true.

As they say, ‘People don’t work for organizations. They work for other people.’ Read about the life of any great leader and you will find that his followers loved him more than anyone else. It is this love that binds. It is this love that enables the person to wake up in the morning eager to meet you and to stay up late in the night to complete an unfinished task.

What people will do for love, they will not do for any other reason. Not duty, not money, not even for their own careers. Emotion is the basis of all action.

All mediocre results are the consequence of a lack of passion. What we ourselves don’t believe in, we can’t inspire others to do. We can only give what we have and so our own passion must never diminish.

Passion is not simply irrational feeling. Passion is the result of an absolute conviction that the achievement of our goal will change our world and to believe that is worth doing and the willingness to dedicate the time, energy and resources to make it happen. This creates a higher sense of purpose of being among those entrusted with directing the path of destiny. Passion results in a sense of pride in our work because our work defines us. People who are passionate about their tasks need no supervision, no monitoring.

They set their own targets and routinely overachieve. They drive their own supervisors and team members to be the best they can. They inspire everyone. That is why passion is in my opinion, critical to success.

All long term goals must be broken down into shorter term results.

? Short term
? What is the immediate gain?
? How important is it to get it?
? How will it change the situation if you get it?

It is essential to answer these questions because in the pursuit of long term goals it is easy to lose steam along the way and diminish your efforts or even to lose direction. Immediate gains not only motivate but they make the all too important point of proving to people that your way works – that the goal is actually achievable.

Achievement of short term goals is helped by having those goals clearly articulated and announced with a reward on the achievement of each. This encourages the spirit and gives people a sense of achievement and gives them hope in eventual success no matter how tough the going currently may be. Celebrating small successes encourages the heart especially in the cold dark stretches of the night when self doubt raises its head and you wonder if you can really win.

Finally in many cases, short term success pre-qualifies and in some cases is essential if the long term goal is to be achieved. A good example is Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagrah; the march to the beach in Dandi to make salt to defy the law under British India. It was a small step but it was in the right direction and shook the foundations of the Colonial Government. The Salt Satyagrah in itself did not rid India of British colonialism but it was an immediate goal which gave people a sense of achievement and success and proved to them that Gandhiji’s highly unconventional way of protest, through non-violent means could actually succeed. It was such steps that Gandhiji took very successfully that gradually built support for his ideas of Ahimsa and people started to believe that the behemoth of British Colonial Government which had governed India for more than a century could actually be unseated and expelled without a bloody and violent revolution. Small successes are very important and can often spell the difference between success and failure of the long term goal.

2. Criteria

Once we have clearly articulated the goal, the next step is to determine our criteria of success and how we are going to measure it. I believe that measurement is essential because it is the only way we have of knowing clearly what we achieved. Without measurement it is possible to have a false feeling of success, especially if we worked hard and long at something. The fact however is that unless we can measure it, it does not exist.

There are two aspects to measurement: ongoing measurement of progress and periodic assessment against the standard to determine whether our progress is adequate or not. Measurement is the reality check in all situations. What we can measure, we can control. What we can control, we can guarantee. That is why measurement is the soul of any product or service quality enhancement effort.

? Measurement
? Quantum & Time?
? What is a fair way to measure progress?
? What would be a stretch goal?

So what must we measure? Measurement parameters must take into account both ‘quantum’ and ‘time’ – how much must be achieved by when? It is a good idea to set parameters collaboratively because people’s participation helps us to understand their susceptibilities, difficulties, fears and aspirations. It is essential to understand all these things because ultimately their efforts will be affected by all of them. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Don’t address their brains, address their hearts.’ Inspiration belongs to the heart.

Inviting people to participate in setting measurement parameters is also a very powerful step to build trust. It is the best way to demonstrate respect for them as team members and to show that they are seen as equal partners and stake holders in the results. People respond to this by owning responsibility and interestingly set parameters which are often more ambitious than you would have set for them yourself. With the big difference that since these measurement parameters were set by themselves, they are more willing to abide by them and don’t see them as being ‘thrust down their throats from above’.

Finally a word on ‘stretch goals’. It is a very good idea to set both a normal and a stretch parameter for each step and to have different rewards for them.

This encourages people to aspire to excel and to set records and stretch their own beliefs about what they had hitherto thought themselves capable of. Doing this collaboratively once again helps to create ownership for the stretch goal which otherwise can become a ‘stretch’ itself. All these are also wonderful exercises in building communication between team members and the team leader and help to iron out any areas of potential conflict.

Once the parameters are agreed on we need to institutionalize implementation.

? Implementation
? Pass or fail?
? Mitigating circumstances?
? Does the standard need to be changed?

The most critical matter is to apply the standard without fear or favor. Nothing sabotages morale like varying standards – different strokes for different folks – is not the preferred method. After taking the trouble to set parameters collaboratively it is essential to apply them impartially. The best way to ensure impartiality is to do the assessment also collaboratively. This creates an atmosphere of high transparency and reinforces trust.Naturally it is possible that there may be some mitigating circumstances in a particular case which prevented someone from achieving his target. Once again collaborative assessment of the situation and deciding on that basis removes all possibility of bias. The rule is that mitigating circumstances are always exceptions and not the rule.

Finally there may be a situation where the goal itself needs to be revised upwards or downwards. It is a good idea to periodically examine the goal in the light of changing global situations and see if it needs to be changed. In this process sometimes new understanding emerges about the means of achieving the goal and so this process must be documented.

3. Reflection

We have embarked on our journey; we face situations; what do we learn? How will this learning help us in going forward? How will it make the rest of the journey easier, safer, cheaper and more productive? All this and more can be achieved by taking time out to reflect. ‘Still time’, is what I call it. Time to simply sit still, in active contemplation of events with the intention to learn from them. To the external world you may appear to be doing nothing. But you are actually engaged in one of the most important activities of mankind; learning. One of the ‘diseases’ of our modern times is what I call ‘busyness’. The big value that we place on activity by itself. We rush around telling ourselves and everyone else that we are ‘very busy’, we ‘have no time’ and so on. Then we collapse on the sofa before the TV in the evening feeling very satisfied that we had a very busy day. But if someone were to present us with a pad and pen and say to us, ‘Please write down what you achieved today by being so busy,’ most of us would not be able to write anything at all.

We have created a culture where it is almost a crime to be inactive, to simply be, to breathe, watch the world go by, to contemplate. The result is that we seem to have lost the skill to do this beneficially and end up with a feeling of having wasted our time and rush back into the apparent ‘safety’ of frenetic activity to which we have become accustomed. This is very detrimental to learning, improving our methods, enhancing our productivity and enjoying our lives.

Reflection is not a waste of time. Structured reflection is the best use of time that we could possibly make because it gives us the possibility of changing our methods to make them more useful. Reflection helps us to create concepts and theories which we can apply and eventually pass on to others. Unless we reflect we can’t learn. And unless we take time out to be ‘still’ we can’t reflect.

There are two stages to reflection: What happened and what did I learn?

? What happened?
? Who did what?
? What did I do?
? What were the alternatives?
? What were the circumstances?

I call this ‘Dreaming Deliberately’. Deliberately playing the scenes in my mind; recalling as vividly and graphically as I can, all that happened. Not putting a rosy color on it. Keeping it as emotion free as possible. Just being the spectator and watching it happen again. Doing this not simply to relive, lament, bemoan or torture myself but rather, as an interested spectator, critically watch what happened in order to learn.

This reflective observation is the first step in learning from life using our own experience as the teacher. The higher our integrity when doing this, the more valuable the learning. There is great temptation to make ourselves look good but it must be resisted. I don’t mean to imply that we are always the ones who are wrong. I only mean that we must be honest about what actually happened and not try to avoid the pain. The two biggest blocks to learning are the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We must beware of both lest they render our life useless and we make the same mistakes again and again. That is the real loss; to do wrong a second time.

While Dreaming Deliberately we need to keep the circumstances surrounding the incident in mind. Once again being absolutely honest with ourselves because if
we don’t, then the only kind of deception that would be happening would be self deception and that prevents all learning. So we watch it happen, see our own role in it, reflect on the circumstances leading to the incident, ask ourselves, ‘What else could I have done? What were my alternatives? What actions happened because I was not thinking? What did I actually choose to do? If I had chosen another course of action what new scenarios would have come into play?

Life is like a series of parallel worlds. Depending on what we choose to do, a new vista opens before us and we walk that path. Sometimes it is not possible to change anything until we come to the next crossroad or fork. At other times we can actually trace our steps back to the last fork and go down the path we did not choose the last time and new scenery unfolds for us. What we call ‘destiny’ is this scenery. We can’t change it. It comes with the path. The forks or crossroads are the choices, the paths that we can choose to walk. If we want different scenery we need to walk a different path; the path which has that kind of scenery. Want to walk in the fields, go to the countryside. Want to window shop, walk down Main Street. It is really that simple.

We get to choose our destiny, albeit without knowing exactly what the details will be. However we have enough indicators to tell us if it will be good or bad, even if we don’t know the details. Our values are the guides which help us to make the right choices and that is the reason they are so important.

Confusion about choices is often the first indicator that we are about to compromise our values. If we are true to our values, there is no confusion. We know why we are choosing a particular path. We know what is likely to happen and we make that choice deliberately. But when we are about to succumb to temptation and compromise our values, our conscience starts to beep and we feel fear.

This fear is different from the fear we call excitement which we feel when we are about to embark on a high risk – high return venture but one that does not entail compromising values. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending. It energizes, enhances awareness and enables us to live the moment fully. I used to hunt big game in my youth and even today, more than 30 years later I can vividly recall the excitement of walking down a game trail, my gun ready at port, watching every leaf, twig and shadow identifying it for what it really was and not what it might appear to be until too late. The shadow could well be the dappled coat of the tigress as she lay crouched in the grass, waiting for her prey to get within striking distance when one short charge, preceded by a roar that turns knees to water, would signal the end of the career of any hunter. This fear would enhance my level of awareness of my surroundings to such an extent that even today I can actually smell the scent of the hot soil baking in the heat of a May sun. Excitement is a healthy
fear that adds value to life.

The fear that arises as a result of our conscience beeping is debilitating, energy sapping and slows us down. Wisdom lies in listening to this inner voice and changing the choice and choosing a different path. Deliberate Dreaming if done well enables us to live those moments again so that through the pain and embarrassment of it all, we are able to see where we went wrong and learn.

? What did I learn?
? What could I have done differently?
? What else could I have done?
? What could I have controlled?

Once we have done enough of reflection in terms of what happened and have gathered enough material to work with we must move to the next stage and that is to ask ourselves, ‘What did I learn?’ Conceptualization is the extract of experience which determines its value. What we don’t conceptualize remains raw experience. Not particularly useful because it is unable to guide us to reach any useful conclusion. At best it may be an interesting story. At worst not even that. The biggest loss is that what we don’t conceptualize we can’t teach anyone, so our experience remains useless to ourselves and others.

A very important part of conceptualization is to actively try to see what we could have controlled and what was really out of our control. Later we shall see how this is an important element to remember while making choices but for now, reflecting on our past, it is important to look for the signs of control. Ask, ‘Who was in control? Why? What gave them that power? What made me powerless at that time? What could I have done to change that situation and regain some of my power which I had given away?

The Learning Journal

A very valuable tool to use for reflection and conceptualization is the Learning Journal. I have used this tool for several decades and have taught it to several thousand students over 25 years of teaching. The Learning Journal is a tool to encourage Living Thoughtfully. Its format is very simple as you can see below:

What happened? Why’s it important? What did I learn?

Every evening you fill out this format. You first record all significant incidents of the day. Then you reflect on and record why you believe they were significant. Then you conceptualize your reflections and record the lessons you learnt. Some days you may come out blank in any one of the columns. You may not remember what happened that day. It is a lesson to prove that you completely wasted 8 -10 hours of your waking time which will never return. It is often a very powerful wake-up call for most people to stare blankly at their Learning Journal trying to remember what they did.

The second and third columns often need more time and so it is alright to record the significant events and then do the reflection and conceptualizing over the next few days and fill them in when you are done. The recording is essential because no matter what we like to believe about our memories, they are transient and even the most important lessons are lost if they are not recorded. So recording is essential. I also find that writing helps me to think in a structured way which frankly is the only way to think efficiently and effectively. Random thoughts simply float around in the mind but get nowhere and no lessons emerge. But if you can structure your thoughts you will find that you can accomplish much in a very short time. As you gain experience and develop your conceptualizing skills you can do it faster and more sharply each time. Takes practice, needless to say, and the Learning Journal is the tool.

4. Choices

Once we have completed our learning, we come to the next stage and that is to ask, ‘So what can I do now to change my destiny?’ We need to make a choice.

This is the most difficult of all stages; to actively choose to change our lifestyle. For one, this may mean choosing to give up doing things that we enjoyed doing but which we realize were harmful. But just because we realize their harmfulness it does not mean that giving them up would be easy. All sorts of addictions will fall into this category. Another difficult choice, even more than the first, is to re-choose our friends.

It is amazing how friends can either facilitate or inhibit change. Depending on the kind of circle we move around in, the new lifestyle changes we planned on become easy or difficult. Our friends will support us or criticize us. That is why it is necessary to choose our friends and give up those who are destructive. The best way to do this is to invite your friends to your new way. If they agree it is good for them.

If not, they will leave you on their own as you have ‘changed’. There are two elements in making a choice: Things which are in our direct control and things which we don’t control but can either influence or prepare for when they happen.

? In direct control
? What are the choices that I can personally exercise?
? What is the ‘cost’ of the choice? My investment?
? What is the benefit? My return?

I believe that it is essential to classify choices on the basis of what we control because then courses of action become clearly visible. There are two aspects of the choices that we directly control which we need to take into account: The ‘cost’ of the choice and its ‘benefit’.

A cost-benefit analysis of any choice is essential because many a time we fail to choose wisely because we have a vague fear in our mind about the consequences of doing so. When however we analyze the cost of taking an action and the benefit (both long and short term) of doing so, we realize that the benefit far outweighs the cost. I have even had the experience of realizing that the so-called cost was something in my mind and not real at all, when I carried out a formal analysis and went looking for hard data to support my ‘feelings’.

It is good to remember and remind ourselves that the benefit of a choice may not always be material (standing up for the minority opinion or for justice and truth or to support the oppressed) and the cost may appear to be too high. But one must weigh this against the real cost of the death of your soul and against the real benefit of perhaps even losing your life but remaining alive for posterity as a beacon of guidance for all others who tread that path. So also is the cost of choosing to follow the orders of Allah in return for the promised reward in the Hereafter when we will be rewarded far more than we imagined. The Messenger said to the effect that there will be people who will enter Jannah purely on the basis of their character, manners and the way they treated others.

I remind myself of this because the conditioning in today’s environment of measuring everything only by its material worth has undermined all values and reduced us to becoming bean counters who can’t see beyond monetary benefit. We have all been impoverished as a result and are suffering collectively from the disease of commercialism and which demotes us from being citizens to being mere consumers. It is at the altar of this god that we are all sacrificed. We must change this urgently.

After we have determined what choices are in our control it is a good idea also to look at choices that we may not control directly but which we can influence through our network, speech or writing.

? Through others
? What can I influence in my favor?
? Whose support do I need and what does that entail?
? What is beyond my control totally but what can I do to prepare to face it?

As you can see from the questions above we can influence choices that are made and that have the potential to affect us both through our own network as well as through the network of those we know. Choices can also be influenced in the public space through writing, activism, public speaking and various other means all dependent on the degree to which we are creative in using all the elements at our disposal. In his book Invictus, John Carlin documents the many choices that Mr. Mandela influenced to win over a hostile population to his policy of reconciliation. A feat that is unmatched in modern political history.

Finally there will be situations which are likely to be totally out of our control, like the current economic slump that we are going through globally, which we as individuals couldn’t have influenced. But even in this case it is possible to prepare for it so that its effects can be controlled and ameliorated in our own lives. While this may do nothing to reverse the negative change, it can at least cushion us from the worst of the impact. I call this whole approach, choosing to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’. I believe that this is a choice that is ours to make. Circumstances will not change as a result but their effect will.

Master or Victim?

In the life of every man and woman comes a time and a window opens when they have a unique opportunity to make an impact and influence others. To succeed we need to anticipate, prepare and act with courage when it opens. Living life is about making choices- the choice to be a ‘victim’ of circumstances or the choice to do something about circumstances and be their ‘master’. We are free to make this choice – to be a ‘victim’ or to be a ‘master’ – but the choices; each has a different payoff in terms of its consequences. Both stances are subject to the same givens of society, environment, organization etc. But have very different implications in terms of your development and happiness. It is one of the fallacies that people assume: that when we say we have freedom of choice, the choice is free of consequences. This is a myth and like all myths, it is a fantasy and a lie. We have freedom to choose but every choice has a price tag – every choice that we make is the same in this context. Each has a price tag. Foolish people make choices without first ascertaining the price tag and are then surprised, shocked, disappointed and so on, when the time comes to pay for the choice. Then they blame others for the result which they could have avoided.

To return to our discussion, ‘victims’ are people who complain about adversity, think of excuses, blame others, lose hope and perish. ‘Victims’ can be individuals, groups, communities or nations. The ‘victim stance’ is the same – complain and blame.

‘Masters’ on the other hand are people who when faced with difficulty and adversity, first look at themselves to see how and why they came to be in that situation, own their responsibility and then they look for solutions to resolve that situation. They have the courage to try new ways and win even if they fail. “Masters’ recognize that whatever happens to us is at least in part, if not wholly, a result of the choices that we made, consciously or unconsciously.

The result of what we chose to do or chose not to do. Consequently if we recognize that we created the situation, then it follows logically that we can also create its solution. The characteristic of ‘Masters’ is that even when they may temporarily be in a ‘Victim’ situation, they quickly ask themselves the key question: ‘Okay so what can I do about this situation?’ This question is the key to taking a ‘Masterful’ stance in life.

This is in itself a tremendously empowering mindset which frees a person from the shackles of self limiting barriers to his or her development. A ‘master’ never says, “I can’t”; s/he says, “I don’t know if I can!” – And in that is a world of difference. The key question to ask therefore is – In terms of the challenges that I face today, what do I need to do if I want to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’? What is the investment that I need to make in order to succeed? This investment may be in terms of changing our attitudes, beliefs, behavior or lifestyle. It is often difficult to do and even more to sustain, but it is tremendously beneficial in all ways.

5. Risk

Once we have identified our choices and decided on a course of action the next step is to assess the risks involved. These would be of two kinds: Immediate and long term.

? Immediate
? What is the nature of the risk?
? What is the Worst Case Scenario?
? Contingency plans: What must be done to mitigate the risk?

In my view the most important thing in risk assessment is to insist on real data about the projected risks. Without that we may be running away from ghosts and fearing things that don’t exist. This kind of fear is debilitating and worthless.

For example one of the reasons why many people don’t take the step to become independent entrepreneurs is because of their risk perception. Asking questions to get some real hard data about the factors involved helps them to realize the true magnitude of the risk and many then take the plunge because they feel capable of handling the risk. Risks may be of different kinds depending on the decisions that you are planning to take; financial, PR, safety, potential lost opportunity, political and so on. Each must be analyzed and assessed in terms of its projected impact.

The next thing to do is to assess the cost of doing nothing, i.e. cost of living in the present state. This is often a very critical question because it has the potential to motivate people to take the big steps that they really need to take to change their destiny.

But the fact is that they will not take them unless they see the need clearly. Burning the boats figuratively is a powerful motivator because it introduces desperation into the equation and desperation overcomes all sorts of reluctance. Once there is complete agreement on the need for change we look at risk itself by doing a ‘Worst Case Scenario Analysis’.

We ask, ‘What is the worst that can happen if all systems fail?’ This is a reality check exercise which is also a big motivator. Once you have been through the barrier of fear and realize that the so-called ‘worst’ is not so bad after all and that you have contingency plans and that there is much that you can do, firstly to ensure that the worst does not happen at all and secondly to mitigate its effects if it does happen; it energizes you to take the plunge.

With long term risk it is essentially the same process in principle:

? Long term
? What is the nature of the risk?
? What is the Worst Case Scenario?
? Contingency plans

The difference is that sometimes we tend to put long term risks on the back burner for too long and are suddenly surprised when they come true. Another common fault is that we don’t think about the long term risk in the excitement of getting started and take short term risks that impact the long term.

However since the effect is not immediately visible we imagine it isn’t there. However some time later the chickens come home to roost to our embarrassment or cost.

Analyzing long term risks is therefore equally important. We follow the same process as I mentioned earlier. We analyze the different kinds of risk involved and cost them and work out the ‘Worst Case Scenario’ and make contingency plans. In the case of long term risk, there may well be things that you can do today which will help to either reduce or completely eliminate the risk. These are well worth considering and spending the time and resources to initiate as they can save a lot of time and tears later.

Cost of finance is a typical case in point where the nature of your sourcing can decide success or failure in the long term. Another is the commitment to quality where insisting on excellence in everything right from the first day may seem to be tedious but in the long run it is usually the lynch pin factor that attracts the best talent you need to succeed.

Short term gains are important and we must try to get as many as we can, but never at the cost of the long term. It can spell disaster.

6. The Legacy

In the end, the worth of a life is measured by its contribution. We are remembered by what we contributed. Not by what we consumed. Contribution is measured by the difference we made to other people’s lives. Was that positive? Then we will be remembered with honor. If not, our passing will be an occasion of breathing a sigh of relief at being rid of a nuisance. It is our choice which of these we want our legacy to be. That’s why we must live thoughtfully.

Because our life is worthy of that attention. Do you agree? Time is a resource that is not renewable. That is why it is essential we learn to leverage it to get maximum benefit.

My Contribution

? What was it?
? Who did it help?
? What difference did it make?

In a world that is obsessively focused on consumption, it is difficult to define yourself in terms of contribution but I believe most passionately that in the end it is contribution and contribution alone that matters. What difference did it make to the world and those who live in it that I was among them? What would have been lost if I had never been born? And that is a question that must be answered not by me but by those whose lives I touched. Was that touch something that they are happy and satisfied about? Or is it something that they would rather forget?

I remember something that one of my mentors told me several decades ago but which remained with me and on which I have tried to model my life.

He once asked me, ‘What do you need to do if you want a plant to grow well?’

I replied, ‘We need to manure it.’

He said, ‘That means that even manure has a positive effect. So what do you say about the person who lives and dies and there is no effect?’

And that is what I ask myself, ‘What difference did I make?’ To this thought I try to hold myself accountable and for this I would like to be remembered.

Over the decades this has proved its value when someone calls me or meets me and tells me how something that I did many years ago, helped them. There’s nothing more satisfying in life than this.

Attitudes for Living Thoughtfully

Finally something on the attitudes that I believe are necessary if one is to live thoughtfully and leave a legacy of honor. There are 5 that are essential.

1. Seeking accountability

Notice that I am using the word, ‘seeking’ and not merely accepting. To seek accountability is a critical leadership skill that is visible in those who want to leave a mark of their passing. It is only when we seek accountability that we indicate that we are willing to take responsibility not only for our own work but for its effect on others. To seek accountability is to stand up and say, ‘I did it and I am responsible for the good and the bad of it.’ To seek accountability is not to export blame, nor to find fault, nor to make excuses and not to run away from the consequences.

People who hide from accountability are clearly stating that they are not ready to lead. That is why in the end it is only those who seek accountability that count. Living Thoughtfully is to live a life that counts.

2. Discipline

All systems are only as good as their implementation. The best ideas in the world have no effect as long as they remain in the realm of ideas. It is only when they emerge into the world of action that the glory of thought manifests itself and becomes visible in concrete results. The secret behind this is discipline. The ability to make a plan and stick to it. Discipline also has to do with two other things: Structuring time and the ability to say, ‘No!’ We all have the same amount of time but the better we can schedule it the more productive we become. Scheduling has to do with prioritizing.

I have written a note on my tools for managing time in the appendix and so will not go into the details here but will suffice to say that the more efficiently we can prioritize our activities, the more productive will our day be.

Saying ‘No’ is a matter of developing assertiveness. Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for your rights without violating the rights of others. Without
assertiveness you become the proverbial doormat and your life becomes the property of others to dispose of as they please. We often labor under mistaken ideas about hurting others; believing that it is necessary to succumb to every demand because we should not hurt others. Becoming assertive is to accept that you are entitled to your own time and to making the best use of it as you think fit. That to tell someone that they have to wait to see you or talk to you because you are engaged in something that is important to you personally is not a sign of selfishness but of self respect. To demand that people be punctual is a sign that you respect the other person by being there on time. To expect that the other person reciprocates by being on time himself is your right.

There is nothing for them to be hurt by this and if they are hurt that is not your problem or responsibility. It is a development area for them.

3. Seeking feedback

There is only one way to improve and that is to know the effect of our current behavior. And there is only one way to know the effect of our behavior and that is to seek feedback. For feedback to be useful it must be data based. It must tell you specifically what you did well or what you did badly. If feedback is merely opinion in another form, be it positive or negative, it is of no use. For example if you just made a speech and someone came up to you and said, ‘That is the best speech that I’ve ever heard in my life.’ That statement is as useless as if someone comes up and says, ‘Excuse me, I am sorry to say, that is the worst speech I ever heard.’ It is true that the first statement will make you happy and you will walk around in a warm golden glow for a couple of hours afterwards and the second statement will make you either sad or mad, but for the purpose of learning, both are equally useless because they don’t give any data. They are merely subjective opinions which leave you equally clueless about the reasons why you were appreciated or deprecated. So you must always ask for the reasons. ‘Thank you very much for saying that. Would you please tell me what exactly you liked/disliked?’ Then make notes, thank the person once again for taking the trouble to talk to you and then later consider the data that you have. It is not necessary to always accept anything that comes your way. But it is always necessary to consider it. Then accept what you believe is valuable remembering of course that not all that is valuable is always pleasant in taste.

4. Willingness to change

If we are serious about our development, which is the purpose of Living Thoughtfully we need to be willing to change when there is a need to do so. Without this openness change will not occur even though we may have all the information needed to change. Willingness to change in my view indicates two critical attitudes of the winner which underlie it and that is humility and the pursuit of excellence. It is only when someone is confident but realizes that there is always room for improvement that he/she will be willing to change. Without that humility feedback falls on deaf ears or worse, causes offence. As for the pursuit of excellence; only when someone wants to constantly improve that he/she will be willing to change and will not become rigid in their ways. The person will seek feedback not merely as a formality but with the active intention of using it constructively. They will monitor their effectiveness and measure it against high standards and seek to excel.

This is not a one time or one-stage-of-life activity but something that the person who is focused on excellence does constantly all through their life to the very end. And that is what distinguishes them and makes them stand out and differentiate from the rest. I have had the good fortune to know some people who even in their later years would learn from their juniors with such childlike enthusiasm that it made me wonder at what a wonderful work environment they must have created around them all through their lives. This shows a genuine commitment to self improvement that supersedes all.

5. Unflinching honesty with yourself

One final attitude in order to live thoughtfully, unflinching honesty with yourself. I left this to the last because it is in a manner of speaking the ‘platform on which everything else runs.’ Without honesty none of the other attitudes will function. I use the term ‘unflinching’ because sometimes honest self assessment is painful. But unless we can look at ourselves squarely in the eye, own up to our actions and then say, ‘Okay so what do I need to do now going forward?’ without flinching, we will not be able to improve.

Running away from facts never helped anyone and won’t help us either. Facts must be faced and dealt with as they exist. Facts can be changed but they can’t be wished away. So being absolutely honest with yourself is the foundation of all attitudes of success and that is why I mention it here, at the end.


Living Thoughtfully is all about leaving behind a legacy of honor. You may well ask, ‘Why should I necessarily leave a legacy?’ I ask, ‘Why not indeed.’ We only live once. Why not live so that we leave behind something worthwhile?