Last of the ‘Innocents’

Last of the ‘Innocents’

“First To Log In, First To Log Out

People born in the mid-to-late 1970s are the last generation of humans on the planet to have grown up without the internet. Social scientists call them the Last of the Innocents. In his book The End of Absence, Vancouver writer Michael Harris calls people who grew up prior to the popularisation of digital culture “digital immigrants” — they have lived both “with and without the crowded connectivity of online life.”

Soon no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet. There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone.

The demise of the Last of the Innocents will mean the loss of an entire plane of human experience — the time when, faced with long hours of nothing to do, our attention was allowed to wander; when there was time for reflection and introspection and devoting attention to people we were actually with; when idle summer nights could be spent in the yard catching fireflies and days would be spent lying in the grass looking for faces in clouds. – The Guardian”

You can read the whole article here: http://bit.ly/2TRpCAz

Yala – not where I lay on my back…but something like that

Dear God! How true that is!!! I am so grateful that I am one of the ‘Innocents’. And I can still recall what it was like to lie in the sand of a riverbed on a dark night, looking up at the stars and wondering if what I was seeing was still there. I didn’t even have a wristwatch because those were rare and, in any case, I was too poor to afford one. Such beautiful days. I recollect this when today, thanks to big data my words are transmitted all over the world to places that I have never been to and probably never will. I have seen both worlds.

Google map of where my podcasts are downloaded

First a disclaimer: Nostalgia alert: Not everything old is or was good. Not everything new is or was bad. But nostalgia feels so good. Enjoy and keep the salt handy.

In the world before plastics, glasses were made of glass, or copper or silver and water tasted better in them. Bottles were transparent glass or opaque ceramic. But both were breakable and did. Plates were ceramic beautifully painted. Also, breakable and did. We also had steel plates which didn’t break but were less classy. Buckets and tubs were unbreakable, made of copper or galvanized iron and made a loud clang when you put them down and dropped the handle. So, you were careful to put the handle down gently. 

The chairs and glass table are 60+ years old

Shopping bags were cloth, washed and reused until they wore out and then served as dish and polishing cloths until they vanished. Chairs were wooden or metal – some foldable, some not. All heavy and unstackable. So, when plastic bottles, plates, cups, buckets and tubs and above all plastic bags came to be, we were thrilled out of our minds. Transparent like glass but doesn’t break? Buckets and tubs lifting which didn’t break your back? Chairs that could be stacked and put away when you didn’t need them? Shopping bags that you could print your label on and which the customer could use for other things or simply throw away? No need to wash and dry and reuse. Truly a vision of convenience heaven.

 Beds were wooden cots without springs with cotton mattresses on them. Every year a man would come with an instrument that resembled a great bow and would be shut into a room with all mattresses. He would unstitch one side, pull out the cotton, prong it with his bow until it was fluffy once again and then stuff it back into the mattress. When you entered the room to give the man a cup of tea, you had to look for him in the white cloud of cotton fluff and dust that he generated. The drumming sound of him working was like an out of tune sitar. What it did to his lungs breathing in the cotton fluff, is not something that either he or we were conscious of but thanks to spring-less beds and firm mattresses we didn’t have backaches. PUF was unheard of. Foam was on soaps, not mattresses. And soaps were in the bathroom, not on TV. There was no TV.

Our home had resident wildlife – sparrows in the rafters making an infernal din every morning belligerently defending their nesting sites from intruders. In Urdu they are very aptly called Khana Chidiya (Khanchudi in Deccani) – house bird. Their feathers and at nesting time, all the grass and other tidbits they brought and then allowed to fall – they are incredibly messy nest builders – meant that the house had to be swept twice or three times a day. Occasionally a sparrow would get brained by a lazily rotating fan because they never seemed to realize that trying to perch on a moving fan was a bad idea. We would pick up the dazed bird and revive it and put it on a windowsill so that it could fly away when it wished. It never occurred to us to de-sparrow the house. Sweeping was preferable to an aseptic house devoid of the chirping of the sparrow. Today with all the concrete and glass and pesticide sprays in the fields, sparrows are gone.

Municipal water came when it came so everyone had storage tanks in bathrooms. If those ran out there was the Bi-hish-ti (literally: man from heaven) who came with a leather sack slung over his shoulder and topped up the tank. More usually he would water the garden and simply sprinkle water in the yard after sunset to cool the place down before our cots would be set out for us to sleep under the stars all through summer. Those who didn’t have gardens had terraces or flat roofs used for the same purpose. How did it feel to lie in bed and look at the moon and stars through your mosquito net, secure in the thought that your house was not being burgled while you slept? I don’t think I can even tell you to try it out today. The world before plastics was different.

 In that world we had no computers, but we had time. We had no TV, but we had friends. We had no cell phones, but we spoke to people face to face. Conversation was an art, taught and learnt and grunts didn’t substitute for words. Language had value and was acquired and husbanded – new words tried out to see how they worked – phrases repeated, shared and appreciated. Poetry was an actual form of self-expression that underlined the thought and the ability to quote the right couplet at the right time was a mark of a person’s education. Conversation didn’t simply revolve around politics or controversial matters, but we talked about thought leaders, exemplars of our past and shared their thoughts and writings, often verbatim – memorizing and quoting them being a sign of our own worth. An hour or two passed in this way, drinking tea and reciting poetry and marveling at the turn of phrase, expressing thoughts that touched the heart was something to be looked forward to and back on with great pleasure.

We worked in the home or for our families for love or duty but never for money. We were never offered money and would have considered it an insult to be offered payment for doing something for our family members, no matter how distant. The concept of paying children to work in the home was unheard of and considered deplorable. Money was called ‘dirt on the hands’ – we dirtied our hands for the experience. The dirt came as a result – we didn’t work for it. Mentioning what anything cost, what anybody earned or what anyone had spent on a gift, meal or any other form of hospitality was considered insulting and crass. Hospitality was a value, not an industry. The guest was someone you invited home to a meal. To take him to a restaurant was considered a lapse in the standard of hospitality. Even if you did it, it was done under duress. Never as a choice. If some family member informed us that he or she was arriving from another city, it was the standard for us to meet them at the station and bring them home.

I will never forget the picture of my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed standing on the platform on Chennai station with garlands when I arrived there in 1985 with my newly wedded wife Samina. He was staying with his daughter, Aunty Jahanara, who we would be transiting with on our way to the tea gardens where I worked. Even though it was not his home that we were going to, Mamujaan honored us by personally receiving us at the station. But then what am I saying? How can the daughter’s home not be his home? Just as my aunt’s home was my home. We learnt from the actions of our elders. Tradition was to keep those memories alive – not only by talking about them, but by emulating the actions. For a family member to stay in a hotel instead of at home with us, was an insult to our honor. The thought that elderly parents could be sent away to a ‘home’ was unimaginable. Home was where we lived – not some place to shunt old inconvenient elders to, to be taken care of by strangers. They were our elders. We remembered what they did for us when we were little. To do the same for them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.

In that world we played real games on real earth not virtual games on a gadget. We ran, sweated, yelled ourselves hoarse, tore our shirts, fell down, skinned our knees, got covered with dust and when it was raining with mud and considered all this as having a whale of a time. In these games we learned leadership, sharing, standing up for our friends, being done in by those we trusted and learnt lessons from all of them. We learned to work as a team, strategize and see the result of that strategy. We stood up for each other, never reneged on our friends, even when we sometimes had to pay the price for that loyalty. We settled with our friend in private but stood by his side in public. You didn’t turn your back on your friends. It was as simple as that. It didn’t matter to us what the color, religion or social status of the friend was. It didn’t matter what car he drove because we all rode bicycles. It didn’t matter what brand of clothing he wore because we all had clothes custom tailored by the Darzee (tailor) in our Muhalla (neighborhood). Bell bottoms were in fashion and we wore them. So were pointed shoes, and Brylcream in the hair. It didn’t matter whether the friend was rich or poor because at the end of a good football game, we all looked the same – the color of mud. It didn’t matter if he was tall or short, handsome or ugly. What mattered was that he was my friend. That was all.

In that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect to elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elder had to carry a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you as the youngster who stood by and watched. Manners meant that you spoke politely after asking permission and listened more than you spoke. ‘That is why you have been given two ears and one mouth’ – we were told. Manners meant that when guests came home you served them, not servants. That you were in the middle of studying for your exam meant nothing. Guests were more important than exams. When the guests left you went back to studying and still got straight A’s. No compromising on results.

Books, read, enjoyed, cherished

In that world, we read books. Not occasionally but every single day. We had our favorite authors, but we still had to read the classics mandatorily. Books were (and still are) our best friends, opening doors into worlds unexplored. We saw the scenes as we read about them, laughed with the actors in those stories, shared their joys and sorrows. 

Books opened for us doors into the hearts and lives of the writers and their times walking through which we discovered ourselves. We read everything. J.R.R Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Alvin Toffler, Iqbal, Ghalib, Ibn Al Qayyim, Louis L’amour, George Orwell, Romila Thapar, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, John Steinbeck, Munshi Premchand, Jakata Tales and many others, all spoke to us. They influenced us and shaped our thoughts and values and taught us to question, critically analyze and choose intelligently. Above all they taught us that we are not unique or more special than anyone else. That others also cry tears and laugh their way through difficulties and that in many cases our worst complaints are the dreams of others. We read and we learnt to write. We saw and we learnt to show by drawing vividly colored pictures with words. We dreamt and learnt to deal with the reality that some dreams are simply that – dreams. But that even the most unrealizable of them, opens vistas to that which might have been and leads to that which can become a reality. We learnt the value of philosophy and the solace it gives to a sore heart. We learnt to choose – sometimes painfully – but learnt the lesson that we could and must make choices. Sitting on the fence invariably gives you a sore crotch.

We had never heard of recycling, but we always wore clothes that had graced the bottoms of our elder siblings. We used and reused them until the thing simply fell apart. Only then did we get anything new. Clothes covered our bodies, not our egos. Manners, not possessions were our statement. Not to say that we were always good mannered – one of the things we prided ourselves on was the ability to describe another’s ancestry in colorful terms for ten minutes without repeating ourselves. A skill that comes in handy when one needs to de-stress. The secret is to do it alone facing a wall. Otherwise it increases stress levels instead of de-stressing.

Since we didn’t have copy paste or auto correct, we learned spelling and wrote clearly in longhand. Ah! The joy of the feel of a fountain pen gliding smoothly across the page – these were the days before ball pens came into being. You chose your pen depending on the width of the nib. Sat with an inkpot and medicine dropper, filling the pen. Then screwed the top back on and carefully wiped the residual ink on your head and you were good to go. We wrote letters not only to give news but poured out our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you would get a letter with a circle around a suspicious stain labelled ‘tear’. Then we waited days and sometimes weeks before we got a reply.

Think!

We couldn’t see the face, didn’t get instant responses and had to struggle with translating emotion into words – so we learned to write properly. Our vocabulary was a lot more than, ‘Ugh!, gr8, Like, youknowwhaimean? LOL. We didn’t explore – we checked. We didn’t reach out – we contacted. We didn’t try to reach – we reached. We used shorthand to take notes and short forms only for telegrams. We learnt to imagine, anticipate and adjust. We learned patience and we learned to write legibly because the addressee had to read what we wrote. We learned to write concisely because we didn’t want the reader to get bored and throw the letter away. We learned to write correctly and grammatically because not to do so was a sign of ignorance and a poor education. It still is.

In this world without instant coffee or tea bags we learnt the value of process – warm the tea pot before you pour in the hot water – and the reward of a properly done job – drink a cup of freshly ground coffee and you’ll see what I mean. And the lesson that everything had a use – used tea leaves are excellent mulch for roses. Drinking tea was also about demonstrating upbringing – hold the cup by its handle between three finger and thumb with the little finger (pinky) sticking out and you don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. And god forbid, never slurp it out of the saucer. Not to say that doesn’t have its own pleasure but you didn’t do it.

Not that everything in the plastic-less world was hunky dory – we had power cuts or to put it more correctly, we were delightfully surprised when we had power. But we had candles and lamps. We had no cooking gas and so our rotis came with a wood smoke flavor. Corn was always on the cob, roasted on live coals, rubbed with half a lemon dipped in salt and eaten hot. What all this cooking on wood did to the forests is another story. We had no refrigerators, so we gave away all leftovers and always ate fresh. Milk would be stored overnight in what was called a Hawadaan (literally: air container) – a cupboard with a wooden frame and mesh sides. If it still turned, we converted it either into a sweet or into ghee. As I said, we recycled out of necessity and it was very enjoyable.

My generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.

A friend said to me, “I am with you. But how do we get this back?”

Get out into the open. Go sit on the grass. Don’t worry about your clothes. Get them dirty. Sit under a tree, in silence and listen to the tree. I mean that seriously. Listen to the tree. Trees talk to those who listen to them. Sometimes it sounds like the rustling of leaves in the breeze. Sometimes, it sounds like birds talking to each other. Sometimes, when the breeze turns into a wind, it sounds like a tired man straightening his back. Sometimes, you can hear what sounds like rain drops, but there is no rain. That is the water that the tree sends back to earth from transpiration. If you are in a forest, you will hear it, sometimes making you wonder if it is raining. It is, and it isn’t. The key to all this is to be totally silent. Silent as in absence of sound. Silent as in absence of movement. Sit still, breathe gently and take deep breaths. Remember that you are sitting under an oxygen generation plant. Take the benefit of that. Let the buzzing in your ears, subside. That is the noise of the city that came with you into the forest. It will go if you let it go. Then you will start hearing the forest and its own sounds, which are not the discordant, disruptive, distressing noise of manmade things and lifestyles. These are the sounds of nature, before man came on the scene and which will remain after the earth has rid itself of yet another pestilence. These sounds are soothing, calm, peaceful, relaxing and eternal. Be prepared to feel like a chain-smoker on a sixteen-hour long haul flight. That will give you an indication of what you have done to yourself. Essentially, it will tell you how sick you are. I mean, the stress you will feel by your self-imposed ban on using your mobile phone. The best thing is to leave it in your car or home. Don’t bring it with you. Feel the lack of it. You need to know what you have done to yourself, so that hopefully, you will be inspired to free yourself from your voluntary enslavement.

Wilpattu – one of the most beautiful places on earth

Walk in the rain. Don’t carry an umbrella or even a hat. Feel the water on your face, head, trickling down your back (it tickles). If the rain is light, it will be very pleasant. If it is heavy, you will get soaked and it will feel even nicer. Don’t worry, you are not made of salt. You won’t dissolve and flow away. I am saying this to people living in the tropics. Those living in Europe and North America must not do this because thanks to colder climates, you may catch a cold or worse. But even there, in summer? All power to you. I hope you don’t live in a place where the rain is acid. How tragic that we have polluted our world so badly that we must fear even the rain!

Once you are wet enough, find a nice tree with thick foliage and shelter under it. Just sit quietly and listen. There is nothing more relaxing than the sound of rain on the leaves overhead and in the surrounding forest. Some rain will drip on you but that doesn’t matter because you are wet already. That is why I told you to walk in the rain first. Then go under a tree. Otherwise you will spend your energy trying to stay dry instead of enjoying the rain.

Finally, I can tell you a lot more but let us leave it at this. When you have done this and start enjoying it, then tell me and I will tell you what the next step of the detox process is. And remember, it all starts with your phone. Or more correctly, without it.

Customer Service? Who is she?

This is why it happens

 Whenever I speak of customer service, I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’. Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).

Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane, we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.

Great customer service is a combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do (tools). Let us look at each of them.

Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the back to where I was, opened the rear passenger door and ushered me into the cab with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and silently got in.

The interior was spotlessly clean and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully, trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being in your car.’

I still remember this incident so many years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s destination. And typically, he would probably never see that customer again. Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give them an experience to remember. Why?

The only answer I have is, because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was. Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (in a sealed bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not horribly dirty, we don’t give it a second thought.

He did what he did because he saw his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it or wanted it or demanded it or would pay for it. It was his own pride in his work and his desire to serve.

Let me give you another example. In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases. A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:

‘Good morning, this is Citibank Car Finance. How can I help you?’

‘Good morning. I am looking to buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’

‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute, I will get you the number of the company which does Maruti.’

Once again, I knew I was in the presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I waited. She came back online in less than one minute.

‘Here’s the number Sir. And if you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a call.’

She knew perfectly well that I was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.

Once again, the power of attitude.

The first thing I would ask anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want to do it?’

# 1.  Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind of thing?

# 2.  Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here, I may as well get it over with.’

# 3.  Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’

Which one applies to you? It’s really as simple as that.

Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?

You have two choices; change your job or change yourself.

Changing your job may neither be feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people. There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So, what should you do?

Here is what you should do:

Stand before a mirror and tell yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile than that? Convince yourself and then go to work.

I was in the airport in Hyderabad and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give me a minute Sir.’

Then he not only cleaned the toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service Training class.

Let me give you my final example. It was 1995. I was teaching a 3-day leadership course for a major IT multinational. The course was in Bombay. This was before the name of the city was changed to Mumbai. It was July. Not the best time to go to Bombay unless you love flooded roads and incredible traffic jams. But when you are lean, mean and hungry, you do what you need to do. I was and I did. I flew Indian Airlines (before its name was changed to Air India) and because if you wanted to fly that is what you flew. There were no other domestic airlines. I landed in Bombay under threatening skies. A cab driver came to pick me up from the airport and we drove to my hotel which was not too far away. As I got out of the car, he asked me, “When do I need to pick you up to bring you back to the airport Sir?” I told him, “At 5.30 pm on Day 3.” He thanked me and left. I checked in to the hotel. That night the skies made good their threat and how? It rained non-stop for the three days that I was there. The whole city was flooded and there was knee-deep water in the streets and traffic was one massive gridlock. It appeared that all those stuck in the traffic jams would spend the rest of their lives in their cars.

On Day 3, as I walked through the hotel reception to my class, I requested them to keep my room as it didn’t look like I would be able to go anywhere that day. I finished my day and as I came to the reception, on the way to my room, who do I see there? The cab driver. He was standing there with a rolled-up umbrella in his hand, totally soaked from head to toe. I was astonished. I said to him, “How are you here? In this rain? You are soaked? Why didn’t you use the umbrella?”

He said to me, “Sir, I came to take you to the airport. The umbrella is for you Sir. Please come, let us go.”

“How can we drive? The street is flooded and there is a traffic jam all around!”

“I know the back roads Sir. Don’t worry. I will get you to the airport. But I have a request. I must apologize to you Sir. I couldn’t bring my car for you because it has a petrol engine and can’t go in water as deep as this. So, I borrowed a diesel pickup van from my friend. If you don’t mind sitting in the van, I will get you to the airport in time for your flight.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. My judgement told me to stay put. I had the hotel room. I was not in a hurry to get home. I wasn’t even sure if Indian Airlines was flying on schedule. But there was no way that I was going to refuse to go after this man had gone to all the trouble on my behalf. I picked up my bag and got into the cab of the pickup and we drove through the flood waters, with a bow wave before us. It was like being in a boat. When we got to the airport, I tried to give him Rs. 100 as a tip. He refused. “It is my duty Sir,” he said. You don’t need to pay me anything. I told him that I was not paying him out of a sense of duty but as a small gesture of my vast appreciation for his effort. He still refused. I had to use all my skills of persuasion for him to eventually accept this token of my appreciation. He left with a smile on his face. Indian Airlines cancelled the flight and since there was no way to return to the hotel, I spent that night on the floor of Bombay airport, warm in the glow of my experience of absolutely heroic customer service, once again from someone who had never heard of a Customer Service Course. Indian Airlines on the other hand gave me many examples of staff who had attended many such courses, with no appreciable effect. It is not about the course. It is about the person.

So, stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’

To help you to focus on customer service, here is a tool you may like to use.

LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something

Listen: The first thing is to listen to the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it. Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but their tone of voice or body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message. In GE there is a process called Voice of Customer (VOC) which is part of the Six Sigma Quality Initiative where customers are regularly invited to come in and talk about how they experience GE’s service. The focus in this meeting is not on giving explanations or making excuses. Just on listening carefully to what the customer has to say about his experience. This conversation then becomes the basis for addressing pain areas and enhancing the level of service.

Empathize: The second is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is immaterial. That they had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of.

I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late-night flight at midnight, having flown across the country from Hartford, CT. I was teaching a 3-day course for AMA International starting at 8.00 am the next morning. I had asked for a non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the room almost at 1.00 am, I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my luggage moved there. I agreed.

Then (only then) did she say to me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My apologies once again.’

The beauty of this response was that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation for what had happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem. They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem, nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.

Accept responsibility: The third thing is to accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else. This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from person to person and having to repeat their story over and over. I am sure every single one of us has faced this, especially where there is an automated response system. Press this button or that and listen to free music while you wait. And every once in a while, a disembodied voice tells you, “Your call is important to us. Please wait awhile for our Customer Service Representative to attend to you.” You want to say, “If my call is really important to you, talk to me.” But you know that nobody is listening, and nobody cares.

There is almost a reflex tendency in most people to give explanations for failed service. We go off into telling people why they are suffering. Believe me, they don’t want to know why they are suffering. They want their suffering to stop. And they want you to make amends. If you don’t do this and tell them all the reasons why they must suffer, it only makes them angrier and more frustrated. So, accept responsibility. It is your problem, because the customer is your customer. It is really as simple as that.

Do something: Finally, take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let them know what you are doing and how it is going to solve their problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. Don’t just disappear over the horizon. Tell them what you are doing to help them. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.

Pre-empt problems: It is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure. Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.

I have always maintained that the quality of customer service depends on what you define as the boundaries of your customer interaction. When does someone become your customer? When does the customer interaction start? When does it end? Does it start when someone calls your office or drives past it or sees your delivery van or website or billboard? Does it start when someone buys your product or service? Where and when does it end? Does it end when the person picks up the package or buys the ticket or the service is delivered to him in some way? Or do you also include their use of your product or service in your definition? I am not going into a detailed discussion of all these, but I want to flag them for you. The quality of your service will depend on your definition.

In Disney, they have a Vice President for parking lots. Now that may sound strange, but it has to do with Disney’s philosophy that to give you a great experience at Disney Land from the time you enter their parking lot to the time you leave, safely on your way home, is their responsibility. This is how it works. When you drive into Disney’s city block size parking lots, you leave your car and get into a shuttle bus to go to the entrance. As you get on the bus, you hear this announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; welcome to Disney. You are parked in Goofy 1.” You will hear this announcement thrice during your trip to the entrance. Once when you get on, once midway in your journey and once just before you get off.

What is unique about this announcement?

It addresses the main customers of Disney, your children. It repeats thrice which is the best way to ensure that people notice what you are saying to them. And it uses Disney characters to name parking lots.

You buy your tickets; you go in and you have a great day. You take all the rides and watch the sights and eat and walk around and take lots of photos. It is now late evening and you return to the shuttle bus station and wonder which bus to take. “Where did I park my car?” That is when one of the little ones pipes up, “Goofy 1.” Children recall the Disney characters that they are so familiar with. The wisdom of the announcement.

When you reach your car, you discover that you had left your lights on. Entirely understandable, as you arrived that morning with a car full of excited little ones, all screaming about what they want to do in Disney. Now, you have a whole lot of tired and sleepy little ones and your car is dead. But as you stand there, contemplating the futility of life, you will notice a PRE-PRINTED sticky note on your diver’s side window glass. The note reads, “We came by and saw that you left your lights on. If your battery is dead and you need a jumpstart, please call this number.” Imagine your state. It is that moment which decides what you think of Disney’s service. Not all the rides or sights or food. But their proactivity in dealing with a problem that was not even their own. But then, they consider it theirs, because you are their customer. And you are their customer, not only when you entered the park but until you have gone safely home. This is so important to them, that parking lots is an entire business vertical. That is what makes service great. It is how you define the boundaries of responsibility.

To be able to give service to your customers that you become the Gold Standard in their perception against which they judge every other service provider, you need to monitor your ‘Moments of Truth.’  I want to share with you one of my favorite stories and the origin of the term, ‘Moment of Truth’. I quote from Wikipedia:

“Jan Carlzon (born June 25, 1941) is a Swedish businessman. He is most noted for being Chief Executive Officer of SAS Group from 1981–1994 At the time Jan Carlzon took over the helm of SAS, the company was facing large financial difficulties and losing $17 million per annum and had an international reputation for always being late. A 1981 survey showed that SAS was ranked no. 14 of 17 airlines in Europe when it came to punctuality. Furthermore, the company had a reputation for being a very centralized organization, where decisions were hard to come by to the detriment of customers, shareholders, and staff. He revolutionized the airline industry through an unrelenting focus on customer service quality. Within one year of taking over, SAS had become the most punctual airline in Europe and had started an ongoing training program called Putting People First developed by Claus Møller of Time Manager International (‘TMI’). The program was focused on delegating responsibility away from management and allowing customer-facing staff to make decisions to resolve any issues on the spot. Jan Carlzon said at the time: “Problems are solved on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission.” These changes soon impacted the bottom-line as well and the company made a profit of $54 million in 1982.”

Ian Carlzon coined the phrase, ‘Moment of Truth’, in relation to Customer Service and defined it as: that moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion.

This is a very clear definition and shows how everyone in the organization is responsible for customer service. It also underlines two things: that frontline staff must be empowered to take decisions without fear to ensure that customers are satisfied and that means that the system must not punish a wrong decision by a frontline staff, as long as it was taken with the intention of satisfying a customer.

If you punish employees for taking decisions, which in their opinion were right, then they will stop deciding and send the customer from one person to another, which is what we see in most cases. Empowerment means that the employee knows that as long as they take a decision in the interest of pleasing a customer, the organization will stand behind them and will support the decision, even if it was wrong and cost the company some expense. This doesn’t mean that your manager will not sit with you to understand why you did what you did and explore what else you could have done. But he/she will not reprimand you. Instead you will be praised and officially appreciated for keeping the customer first. Every employee must know this and must act with this confidence. Otherwise frontline employees will cover their backs and the customer will be given the royal merry-go-round ride.

To be able to monitor and control Moments of Truth you must know where they occur, and you must be able to record and measure them. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a winning operation. If you either don’t know what your Moments of Truth are or where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing Moments of Truth and controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which most organizations are unwilling to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and, in some cases, quite understandably, go under. The most significant fact is that most Moments of Truth happen at the periphery of the operation in places which are manned by the most junior, least qualified and mostly ignored members of staff. They decide your fate. It is your security guard, your receptionist, sales representative, bus driver, telephone operator, webmaster, helpdesk, the state of your waiting areas, washrooms and cafeteria, the person who delivers your product to the customer and many such people, who give your customer or potential customer a taste of your customer service. In many cases, these people may not even be on your official roles and may be contract employees because you have outsourced these activities. Yet, they are your face. The customer sees them as your representatives and their interaction with the customer, decides your fate. The customer doesn’t ask the frontline employee he is dealing with whether he is a direct employee or an outsourced contractor. He doesn’t ask, he doesn’t care. So, pay close attention to them, train them, value them, appreciate them, make them team members in spirit, even if not in letter. If not, you, not they, will pay the price. 

Conclusion

Great customer service is about concern. It is about being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving. It is about being a shrewd businessperson; recognizing who pays you and ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.

Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how you made them feel. That is the key.

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

How to kill loneliness before it kills you

And the solution is – Kill loneliness before it kills you. Let me tell you how! 

But first an alert: This is going to sound a bit preachy. Please bear with me. I am talking to myself.

First, when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick a number.

Remember, work doesn’t kill you; retirement does. If you love what you do, you never need to retire. Read on. I am going to tell you what I did. You can do that or pick your own. So, here is my 9 – point program. 9 things you can do to kill loneliness.

1. Accept it: The first thing to do is to mentally prepare yourself that the day will come, sooner than later when you are going to be alone. Deaths of loved ones may hasten it but one day it will be upon us. All you need to do to accomplish it, is to remain alive. So, the first thing to do is to get used to the idea and accept that one day you will be alone. It is important to think about this, talk about it and reflect on it, because it is inevitable. The sooner you start thinking and talking about this, the easier it will be when it happens. I have seen both, those who do and those who don’t. The difference is stark and the pain entirely avoidable. But remember that this is a problem only if you hate solitude. Learn to love solitude. Seek it actively. Keep a time in your daily life when you are alone with yourself, thinking, reflecting, meditating, praying, reading, writing, looking at the world go by, watching birds fly and grass grow, listening to the wind in the trees, listening to the brook talking to itself as it flows past you, and lying on your back and looking up at the dark star-filled sky (that position doesn’t give you a crick in the neck). If you are lucky and have some energy to go where you need to go to see them, you can also watch flocks of geese crossing the rising sun, talking to each other. You can watch Baya Weavers, weaving their complex nests, as they prepare to commit matrimony. You can…okay, I will leave you to fill in the blanks. In short there is a huge number of things that you can do for which you don’t need anyone else. Being alone is not so bad after all. It can be very enjoyable indeed.

2.  Get a hobby: It can be anything, but it must interest you. The sooner you begin, the better. Pick one that needs you to do something, some research, some reading. Something that needs effort. Connect with others who have the same hobby so that you have companionship and can compare yourself and what you have with others. Not to create unnecessary stress in meaningless competition but just to initiate new friendships. It can be great fun and it opens doors to aspects of yourself that you never imagined.

When I started to learn Hindustani classical singing, the most amazing discovery I made was that there is no actual record of what I sang (unless I recorded it). Unlike writing which by default is a record, a note or a line of song you sing, is a one-time thing. Whether you did it right or wrong, it remains a memory in your mind or in the mind of others. But there is no physical record of it. That was such a liberating feeling that I was doing something which would not return to haunt me. It opened my eyes (and ears and heart) to a whole new way of expressing myself. I recall one time, when I was standing in neck deep water of a river in a forest in Tamilnadu, singing Raag Asaawari and watching how the water that touched my throat seemed to ripple in harmony to the sound. Was I imagining it? I don’t know. But I still remember it very clearly. I must have looked rather peculiar to those who were watching me. In India there is always someone watching you. But who cares?

I also realized that singing has more to do with listening than to do with making a sound. You can’t sing if your ears are not attuned to the difference in tone from one scale to another. When you learn to sing, you learn to listen. The better you can listen, the better you can sing. My teacher told me this and I experienced it. I trained for three years, from 1994-97. Then I gave up formal training because I went off to the US and got busy with building my consulting business there. But there I got interested in the recitation of the Qur’an. Guess what turned out to be a big help in that!! I would drive endlessly from one appointment to another, reciting Qur’an in my car, conscious and thankful that what was helping me then was the voice training that classical singing compels you to do. Another place where this voice training helped me tremendously is in public speaking which is a major part of my work as a trainer and keynote speaker. I speak about leadership, teaching, raising children, the Glory of the Creator and all the while, in the background what helps me to project my voice, to express passion and emotion, to show feeling and to connect with people, is my voice training as a singer. I teach conflict management and negotiation. This is another area where listening for tone, helps me very much. There is much that people give away in the way they say something. If you are listening to the tone, not only to the words, it tells you a lot more than the words do, and usually more than the speaker may want you to know. Learning to listen is a hugely important and valuable skill and learning to sing is a very enjoyable way to learn it.

My lens and I, in Yala National Park

The same thing happened to me when I started photography seriously. I was on a trip with a dear friend of mine, Aditya Mishra who is an avid and excellent photographer and showed him some of my photos taken with a point and click camera. He looked at them and said, “I think it is time for you to get a decent camera and lens.”  It took me a while to get what I now use, a Nikon D-500 with a Nikon-Nikkor 200-500 lens but all through that journey which continues, it opened my eyes to the world. Nobody sees the world like a photographer, framing an object to photograph it. I photograph birds and animals and sometimes landscapes. I learnt to pay attention to detail. I learnt to enjoy color and texture and shade of light. I learnt to admire camouflage; to look at a patch of scrub in dappled light, not high enough to hide a jackrabbit and then to suddenly realize that I am looking into the eyes of a tiger. I would never have seen that if I wasn’t looking at it through my lens. I learnt to admire the flight of a falcon and then to watch it drop out of the sky to take a pigeon on the wing, the force of her strike sounding flat like a gunshot in the still of the early morning, with a puff of pigeon feathers to bear witness to the play of life and death being enacted before my eyes. I learnt also to simply put down my camera and look at the world outside the viewfinder. Thanks to the camera I learnt to see. Not simply to look.

Photography taught me major life lessons. Courage and resilience, for example. Not from tigers or lions but from small birds which are defenseless. They can’t fight anyone, they are on everyone’s menu, yet they survive, never give up, sing with joy every morning, build nests, raise young, sometimes only for them to become monitor lizard food. But they don’t despair, don’t go into depression, don’t commit suicide. They build another nest, lay some more eggs and raise some more young. In the end, the little bird wins every time its youngster takes to the air.

3. Become friends with yourself: Learn to like your own company because you are going to get a lot of it. Develop an interest that doesn’t need your immediate family to share it with. In today’s world of social networking that is not difficult to do. Technology can be your friend or a stranger, even an enemy. That depends on you. You don’t need to become a rocket scientist, though there is no law against that. But you can certainly learn to become techno friendly. My Hindustani classical music teacher who was 75, had a 486 PC with a camera. Behind the computer on the wall, she got someone to print out the whole sequence of things she needed to do to start the machine and logon to Skype – days of DOS-OS remember? –and off she would be talking to various friends and family across the globe. By today’s standards, the connectivity, speed, picture and audio quality were enough for one to pull out all his hair in frustration but in 1994, a 486 was state-of-the-art and lightning fast and a huge improvement over the 386. Life is relative.

Get a routine. A routine is your best friend. With a routine you are never at a loss for something useful to do. That keeps you and your mind active and out of brooding and depression. Develop an interest or a hobby. Where possible, keep a pet. Not a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank. But a real pet like a cat, or a goat or a horse. Or a chicken. Country chickens have great personality and attitude and make lovely pets. Depends on where you live, of course. But if you want to know what it feels like to be looked down upon and be valued purely as a meal ticket, keep a cat. Those who have millennial children, need not keep cats because they know what that feels like very well. Gardening, and that can be one pot, is another wonderfully therapeutic hobby. Keep a bird feeder in your yard, balcony, on your terrace. Keep water out for birds in the summer. Grow your own veggies in pots in your balcony or on your terrace. The idea is to do something that requires your contribution and where you can see it making a difference. That responsibility, even if sometimes it seems arduous, is what keeps you alive and the Big A at bay.

4. Don’t lose the ability to make friends: One of the first things that older people lose is the ability to make new friends. And when they lose their old friends, as we all do, they are left all alone. The big reason we lose that ability is because we refuse to relate to people different from ourselves. As we grow older, we become judgmental and demand (albeit perhaps unconsciously) that others must conform to our standards, before we allow them into our lives. Instead we must become more open to new ideas, new ways, new standards. I am not talking about what is clearly good and evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, respectful and insulting. I am talking about, for example, hairstyles, way of speaking (not ill manners, just a different way of talking), cell phone use. If he looks like he stuck his finger in the power socket and has all his hair standing on end, it is okay. His head is his piece of real estate. Not yours. He is still a nice kid with a brain and your eyes and ears into his world. But only if you can get past the porcupine look.

As for cell phones, I have never heard anyone complain if a youngster has his head buried in a book. But if that same head is buried in a phone, we have major issues. Why? Maybe he is reading a book on his phone. Maybe he is browsing the net and accessing information that he wouldn’t have found in a hundred books. We oldies must become more tolerant, while maintaining our boundaries of what is fundamentally good and evil. When we are with youngsters, we feel younger, more energetic, we learn new things, we see the world in a different light. And we are challenged to add value to them, so that they don’t get bored with us.

What doesn’t work is when you start your stories with, “In my days, you could get one dozen eggs for one rupee and one goat for three rupees and one cow for ten rupees.” Someone went on like this for a while until one of the youngsters said, “Uncle that is great. So, in your father’s time, everything must have been free.” Live in the present with them. When I was 15, almost all my friends were 30 years older. I learnt from them. Today I am 63 and most of my friends are 30 years younger. I learn from them. We have a great relationship, and both enjoy it. Ask them, if you like.

5. Prepare your body: It is critical to ensure that you are physically fit. The vast majority of geriatric ailments are lifestyle related, not illnesses. Watch what you eat. Eat natural, not processed foods. Sleep early and wake early. Exercise moderately. Don’t do any heroics, thinking about what you used to do at age 20. Today you are three times that age. Don’t try it or you will suffer the consequences until you die. Get out of your house and hit the gym and the park. Walk a few kilometers every day and do some strength exercises. Don’t get over ambitious, don’t try to impress anyone, don’t try to break any records but also don’t let a day pass that you have not exercised. The main thing is to get out of your house into the open and connect with nature. Eat sensibly. Don’t dig your grave with your teeth. Let them use an excavator. The biggest curse is excess weight. It drags you down, makes you lethargic, makes everything a burden and gradually kills you very painfully. A pot belly is not a death warrant, it is a lifelong pain warrant. Death is inevitable. Pain is not. So, get rid of it. Think about that with every morsel of carbs you eat. Make sugar Haraam on yourself. Avoid all fizzy sugar drinks. Stop eating sugar. Sugar kills. And (sugar free) Aspartame gives you cancer. Take your pick.

I won’t even talk about cigarettes. If someone wants to pay for cancer, who am I to object? Makes no sense to pay for cancer, because cancer is free. Do you get my point? If your body is healthy, half the battle is won. So, pay close attention to that. The slide is insidious, seductive and lethal. Stay away from it.

6. Prepare your mind: Keep your mind healthy. Read. Read. Read. Pray. Pray. Pray. Focus on your mental and spiritual self. If you are like most normal people, both would have been hugely neglected. Repair your connection with Allahﷻ. You will need it soon enough. Learn a new language. It doesn’t matter if you never master it. The act itself is important because it will challenge your brain and keep it active. Play games that require cerebration. It means use your brain. Consciously look for the positive things in life and shut out all negativity – especially what you can’t control. I love watching wildlife and nature movies and I love wildlife and bird photography. Again, it is good to want to be the best at whatever you do, but don’t worry if it takes you a long time to get there. Keep at it. Don’t watch the news, talk shows, TV debates and all the totally negative, toxic media that we have allowed to take over our lives. Focus on the positive. There is plenty of it, and if you can’t find it, create your own. Nobody can stop you from doing that. Go help people. Visit hospitals and talk to strangers. Pay their bills if they can’t afford to pay them. Visit schools, especially in poor neighborhoods. Offer to teach for free. Connect with children, listen to them, talk to them, sit with them, laugh with them. This is therapy and it is free. I do this 80% of my time, every year. People think I am doing great public service. But I know why I am doing it. Believe me, it works. Also, since 2000, I have written 35 books, done over 2500 short lectures and over 650 longer ones, all free. Question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I prepared to pay for my mental health?’

7. Stop living in the past: Yes, our good old days were good, but not as good as we like to recall now after fifty years They were as good and bad as today, with the only difference that what was good and what was bad, differed. Prices were cheaper but we had very little spending money. Competition for jobs was less but there were all of four career choices. Schools were less crowded, but we did rote learning and had corporal punishment. We didn’t have high medical treatment costs because we had almost none of the medical facilities that we have today. Life is relative. Live in the present because that is the only thing we really have. The past, both the good and bad of it is gone. The future is only a thought. We may never see it. And the older we get, the truer that is.

8. Appreciate what we have today: An attitude of gratitude is the cure for all ills. We have air travel that is cheaper than it has ever been. We have Wi-Fi and smart phones which help us to connect to the world. We have Google which the opens doors of almost every kind of knowledge that we choose to learn, sitting in our homes and free of cost. We have far superior medical aid than we ever had. We have appliances at home and apps on our phones. We have all sorts of conveniences that our parents didn’t even imagine. And what’s more, far many more of us have these than was the case in our parent’s time. My driver has a fridge and my cook has a microwave oven and both have air coolers in their homes. During my childhood, microwave ovens didn’t exist, neither did air cooling or air conditioning and fridges were as rare as polar bears in the Antarctic. Yes, Hyderabad was cooler than it is today, but believe me, all those sweaters in March are only in your imagination.

9. Stay away from doctors and hospitals: That may sound strange to you, but I have seen so many elderly people who seem to be obsessed with health checkups and medicines. Let’s face it. You are not getting younger, stronger, faster, healthier or sexier. I am willing to contest that last one but not the others. What are the tests going to show you? What will that do to your morale? What is the good of that? We all die. Some die before they stop breathing. Those are the ones who are obsessed with medical tests. Remember that health care has become an industry. It is no longer about curing the sick or even better, keeping people healthy. How does an undertaker make money? By people dying. How does a doctor make money? By people being or believing or imagining and trying to find out if they are sick. ‘Health care’ is a misnomer. Today’s health care has a stake in sickness, not in health. That is the problem with becoming an industry. The only focus then is on profit and return on investment. There are too many glaring examples in our society. I don’t need to give you any examples. I am sure you have your own. Sorry doctors. My father was a doctor, but he died penniless because he didn’t treat people who were not sick. He had a stake in people’s health, not in their sickness.

You don’t need a doctor to tell you if you are sick. If you wake up in the morning with your usual aches and pains, you are as healthy as an old horse. Do what the old horse does. He does his business and goes about his business, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, go visit a farm where old horses are out at pasture and you will see what I mean. Then one day, when his time is up, he lies down in a nice patch of grass in the sun and stops breathing. What do we, who are obsessed with health checkups, do? We spend our last days hooked up to various machines, in an ICU, with tubes coming out of our orifices until we stop breathing, but all the while making doctors rich. If that is how you want to go, please do. I don’t. So, I made a ‘No Hospitalization Will’. And I pray that I will never need hospitalization. Read, ‘Being Mortal’, by Dr. Atul Gawande. Amazing book that talks about this. He is a consultant in Harvard Medical School, so he should know, right? As I told you, if it is your idea to spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary hospital bills, please do. That’s your choice.

Believe me, if you do all this, it will keep you so busy that you will have no time to feel lonely. You won’t sit there yearning for people who passed away to walk in through the door. If they did, you would walk out of your skin. Instead, your new friends will walk in through the door and take you for a walk. That is why you have friends.

And yes, I forgot to mention, stop saving money. Spend it. You can’t take it with you. And your children can look after themselves. Enjoy yourself, go on a cruise, tick all the boxes on your bucket list. Help others. That gives more satisfaction than the cruise and the bucket list. But do both. And then lo and behold, it will be time to go. May that time and that day be the best day of your life because on that day you will meet the One who made it all possible.

What’s your Worth?

What’s your Worth?

‘If you want to see what someone values, see what they measure.’

Mikel Harry, Motorola, 6 Sigma Quality

What does being human mean?

Many years ago, in the 1970’s I remember seeing a Russian tractor. India used to have a bilateral trade agreement with the USSR by which we bought all kinds of goods from Russia and paid for them in Indian Rupees, whereby we were able to conserve our meagre foreign exchange. You can read more about that agreement here http://www.commonlii.org/in/other/treaties/INTSer/1953/16.html

Russia bought tea from us; huge quantities of rather poor-quality teas and supplied us with manufactured goods. This tractor was one such, representing perhaps ten years supply of the morning cuppa to a Russian farmer. What amazed me was its size. It was massive. Not merely big or huge, but massive. Later someone told me that these tractors were failures and people went back to buying the smaller and lighter, Massey-Ferguson tractors, even though they came from a place which was ideologically inferior to the Great Socialist Republic.

I knew the answer but asked him why Massey-Ferguson tractors were considered superior and why the Russian tractor had failed. And sure enough he said, ‘We use tractors to plough in rice fields. A heavy tractor sinks into the soil and even if it has the power to get out, it churns up the soil so much that it spoils everything. Sometimes it gets stuck so badly that we have to yoke bullocks to it to haul it out. Why buy a tractor if you still need bullocks?’ Why indeed!

I did some research into why Russian tractors were so heavy. Massive blocks of steel. The answer I got was that Russian factories measured output by the amount of steel consumed. If you were a factory manager and had to show high production figures, you had to show that you were consuming a high tonnage of steel. There are two ways to do that. Make lots of lighter tractors or fewer but much heavier ones. Which is easier? You guessed it. And there you have, massive tractors, that make the Production Reports look good. How do they work in the field? Depends on the field. Maybe they worked fine in the Russian steppe, ploughing to grow wheat or corn. But in India, in rice fields they failed. To this day in some villages you can see a massive steel tractor gently rusting, testimony to an age of mindless industrialization where progress was measured by weight.

You get what you measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”

Today we live in a world where dignity has quite wrongfully been linked to material wealth. No matter how learned a man or woman may be, or how kind or truthful or trustworthy, if they are not wealthy, they are treated with disdain. Net worth has only one meaning. And I can’t think of a more dishonorable meaning; to equate a person to the amount of money in his pocket. HNI; what if it meant Person with the best character? Instead of Person with the most money, no matter how he earned it and no matter what his character is like. Not to say that all rich people are evil. They aren’t. I am talking about what we measure which shows what we truly value. If we measured character, truthfulness, kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, concern for the underprivileged, the weak, elderly, poor, sick; then that is how we would define ourselves. High Networth Individual would mean the kindest, most truthful, most compassionate, most courageous person in that society. We wouldn’t glorify ostentation, waste, self-centered consumption, cruelty, oppression. We would call Aristotle, ‘The Great’, instead of Alexander, whose only claim to fame was that he left Macedonia to rape, plunder and loot his way across a million square miles of others’ homes and societies. Who we glorify and celebrate, tells a much bigger story about who we are than about who they were.

Ask, what would the implications of living in such a society be on people’s happiness and self-worth; real self-worth, not pretentions to it. I believe this is something to think about.

If we applied today’s standard of HNI – High Networth Individual, how would people like Hillel and Shammai, Al Ghazali, Al Biruni, Ibn Sinna, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Jalauddin Rumi and so many sages and scholars of so many traditions, look? How would you judge the Networth of Aristotle, Epictetus, Plato, or even the prophets like Moses, Abraham, and perhaps most of all Jesus (Peace be on them all) – about whom Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “The sky was his roof and the earth his bed.” Today he would probably be in a homeless shelter after having been arrested from a park bench or pavement and taken there by the police.

Conversely if we applied an ethical and moral standard to decide who was an HNI and who wasn’t, how would Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the various Middle Eastern Potentates, and the many billionaires in different countries, look? Especially if you consider the fact that the poorest countries in the world today seem to have the highest number of billionaires. Many of them living in high-rise palaces with their feet grounded in the misery and squalor of the daily lives of the poor. Not ashamed, not troubled, not even giving it a second thought as they go about trying to outdo each other in vulgar display of wealth; not by competing in charity but in wastage and excess.

Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money, as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity and reap according to kindness.

Islam is very particular about preserving the dignity of the receiver so that he doesn’t feel demeaned because he needs to accept charity. Islam says that the one who receives, honors the one who gives because by giving the giver is receiving reward from Allahﷻ whereas the one receiving is only getting something material from another human being. So, the giver gives and thanks the receiver for accepting it.

‘If you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’

There is a wonderful story about the Regent of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, who came to the throne at the age of ten and had a Regent who ruled in his name until he came of age and who was his mentor, teaching him how to be King. His name was Abdur Raheem and his title was Khan-e-Khanaan (The Khan of Khans – Chief of Chiefs). He was a very learned man, a polymath, a scholar of Islam and known for his great wisdom and sagacity.

One day Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan was traveling from Delhi, the capital, to Agra. Needless to say, he was preceded by his massive entourage and surrounded by his escorting troops and personal bodyguard. On the way he saw a man standing at the edge of the road with a glass bottle in his hand in which were a few drops of water. The man would tilt the bottle until the few drops of water were at the lip of the bottle, in danger of falling out, and would then straighten the bottle so that they didn’t fall out. This he kept doing over and over. Abdur Raheem ordered his carriage to stop and ordered his treasurer to give the man a bag of gold coins. This was done.

That evening, when he was in camp and his Durbar had been set up and he was receiving petitions, his treasurer asked him, “Your Grace, why did you give that man a bag of gold coins? Who was that man?”

Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question. Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”

The treasurer said, “Your Grace, all I saw was that the man was tilting the bottle until the water in it almost flowed out, but he would save it at the last moment and didn’t allow it to fall out. But what does that mean?”

Abdur Raheem said, “It means that the man was saying, “I have lost everything except two drops of honor. And now even that is about to go.” If he had come and begged me for charity, it would be at the expense of his honor. So, I ordered you to give him the gold so that his honor is preserved, and nobody knows that he received charity.

Today as we speak there is a raging debate about the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. On one side are those who claim that this is good for the people of Kashmir who will now be able to sell their land and become wealthy. They say that this will bring in much needed new business and tourism and thereby jobs and boost the economy. Even those who normally walk the high talk of ethics and morals supported the bill in Parliament on the plea that it was ‘good for the people of Kashmir’. On the other side are those arguing that you can’t take unilateral action without consulting the people, on the plea that it is good for them? Why were the people themselves, whose welfare seems to be everyone’s concern, not taken into confidence before taking the action of abrogating a Sovereign Guarantee enshrined in nothing less than the Indian Constitution?

What is a Sovereign Guarantee? It is a guarantee given by the Nation. Not by the government in power at the time. But by the Nation, to fulfill whatever it was that was guaranteed. No matter if the government that gave the guarantee changes. The guarantee would still be valid and sacrosanct. Especially where it is enshrined in the Constitution, it is inviolate and inviolable. However, it looks like today we seem to have changed the meaning of Sovereign Guarantee. Does this mean that a Sovereign Guarantee can never be changed? No, it doesn’t. It means that it can’t be changed unilaterally. If the two parties in the guarantee mutually agree to change it, then it can be changed honorably. But both parties must be involved in the re-negotiation and must come to a new agreement. For one party to unilaterally change a Sovereign Guarantee is not honorable. Do we even know what honorable means today? After all, today our highest criterion for decision making seems to be political expediency.

I am not against economic development. I am against giving it precedence over honor, truthfulness and integrity. After all, if we do that, then what’s wrong with drug dealing, stealing, bribing, human trafficking and a plethora of ways to make money? It is only truthfulness, the sense of right and wrong, virtue and sin that is the demarcating line between what is honorable and what is not. Al Capone was an entrepreneur, wasn’t he? So is Bill Gates. Is there a difference? Who would you like to be? If I break my word once, then what value does my promise have in the future? It takes a lifetime to build trust but to destroy it, all it takes is one instant. Take an expensive crystal vase and drop it on a stone floor. As it shatters into a thousand pieces, you will perhaps understand what I mean by keeping and breaking promises. Can it be put back if you are able to collect all the pieces? Perhaps it can. But it will never be the same. You will always be able to see the fault lines. Another simple way to understand this is to ask yourself this question, “Who would I rather deal with? A person who keeps his word or one who is liable to betray it if it suits him?” A Sovereign Guarantee is not about the matter that you are guaranteeing. It is about us as a Nation. It tells the world who we are. Or more accurately about how we choose to define ourselves. The world merely agrees.

As Mikel Harry said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they measure.’ Let us ask ourselves, what do we measure? Not just pay lip service to. But measure because we value it.

It was 1980. I was working in Guyana, in a small mining town on the River Berbice, called Kwakwani. I had saved up money to take my first holiday and planned to go to London. As I was going to pass through the United States, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and visit some friends and see New York. But there was one problem. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the US but was refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, sadly, I only transited in New York and went on to London. In 1982, when I decided to return to India though I would need to transit through New York and was dying to see the city, I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason.

However, one weekend a few months before I was due to leave, I went to visit my good friend Rev. Thurston Riehl who was the Vicar of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Father Riehl told me that he had invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. Father Riehl said that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed. That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa in 1980 but was refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa this time?”

Goodman turned to me and asked, “What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”

“I give you my word that I will not stay on illegally. More than that, I can’t do.” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in Georgetown.”

So promptly the following week I went to the US Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security nightmares that you have to face today, and I was conducted straight away to his office. He gave me an application form, and after I had filled it in, he accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike into which you had to speak.

As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I was unwittingly privy to their conversation.

Goodman: “Can you please give him a visitor’s visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”

“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”

Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”

“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me you believe him!!”

Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”

“Okay Sir, it’s your neck!!”

Then she turned back to the window where I was and said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked her and left. Neither of them was aware that I’d heard their entire conversation.

I landed in America, stars in my eyes. I was given a stay permit for three weeks. I was however not prepared for the reception that I got. After the initial welcome, all my friends got after me to find a job. I tried to tell them that I had not come to stay and that I was only visiting on my way back to India. The conversations all went something like this:

“I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is looking for help. You can start waiting at tables and then see where it takes you. Nothing to worry. We all start the same way in this country but see where we are today. Here they pay you by the hour. No way you can get that in India.”

“I haven’t come to stay. I am going back home. I got my visa on the promise that I wouldn’t stay in America illegally. So, I am not going to.”

Looks of incredulity. Where is this guy from? I mean which planet? Promise? What is he talking about anyway? Let me ask.

“What promise?”

“I promised the Consul General in Guyana that I wouldn’t overstay my visa and wouldn’t remain in the US illegally.”

“Yeah! Tell me about it! We all did that. So, what happened? Everyone knows, we are not doing anything illegal. We are just hustling for a living. So, can you. Who cares?”

“Staying without a visa is illegal. Who cares? I care.”

“You are just plain lazy. You don’t want to work hard. Do you have a job in India? What will you do there? You will starve. Look at so-and-so, see how he made a success. Started pumping gas. Now he owns the gas station. So can you if you only work hard.”

“In India I will have to work harder. It is not about hard work. It is about keeping my word. I promised Dennis Goodman that I would not stay back. (I tell the whole story again). He told the consular officer to give me a visa on his guarantee. How can I go back on my word?”

“Dennis Goodman is not watching you. He doesn’t even know.”

“Yes, you are right. He is not watching me. Dennis Goodman doesn’t know. But I do.”

End of conversation. Nobody is convinced. Nobody shows me any respect for standing by my principles. But it doesn’t matter to me, because I couldn’t have done anything else. I don’t budge, because my word is my bond. And I gave my word. 

When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben, stuck some nice British stamps on it and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but if he is still around and reads this, I want him to know that I remember his kindness and appreciated his belief in me. And I want him to know that I kept my word and did what I’d said I would. Maybe he can show this to the lady who’d said to him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe.

The world is round and what goes around, comes around. Today almost forty years later, I have been lecturing American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and have lived and worked in America and traveled there many times. Every time I do, I think of Dennis. Very interestingly also, a dear friend, who heard this story, found Dennis on the net. I am hoping it is him and that I will be able to contact him, so that the story can have a proper end. Shows how the world is both a small and a big place.

Try

Try

Judgement

by Anonymous

Before God’s footstool to confess 
A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; 
“I failed,” he cried. The Master said, 
“Thou didst thy best—that is success!”

My house and my free flying Macaw in Guyana, 1980


It was December 1980. I was sitting on the veranda of my house in Guyana. It was about 9.00 pm, dark, balmy evening in the tropics. As usual on most days in this season, it had rained in the day and stopped. The air was heavy with moisture but the breeze, cool. Before me was the orange orchard of the Staff Hill, bounded on the far side by the forest. The rain-forest of Guyana. The evening had signed off to the night by the booming calls of the Howler monkeys who also announced the beginning of the new day. Scarlet Macaws flew to their roosts, talking to each other. I also heard the chatter of the Sakiwinki (Common Squirrel Monkey) families settling into their resting places. The forest was now relatively quiet, except for the singing of the Cicadas, whose song rose and fell in waves like those of the ocean. Sometimes they would fall totally silent, only to start again in the middle of my deep breath of relief, to remind me that the only way to live with Cicadas, as with some kinds of people was to get used to them. The forest is never totally silent because the forest is a living being. It has living beings in it, but it is itself a living unit which breathes, sings, groans and talks to those who know how to listen. The forest has its own language, which you need to learn, if you want to enjoy being in the forest. Otherwise the forest can be an alien, ominous, even threatening presence to those who don’t understand it.

I spent my whole life from the school days, to this, in forests. Not that I lived inside them but I lived near them and where I didn’t have forests near me, like now when I live in a huge, concrete labyrinth called a city; I make the effort to go to the forest at least once every quarter, simply to breathe. Otherwise I feel suffocated and start dying slowly, inside. The forest rejuvenates me, gives me new life, energizes me and enables me to go on for a while longer. So, that night I simply sat on my veranda and was one with the forest.

But where does the poem I began with, come into this story? You ask.

That night, I had finished a very long and protracted negotiation with the union, a marathon session over 72 hours, practically non-stop. But still at the end, we were waiting to see what the union would do. Accept or not. That is when I recalled this poem, which my very wise and dear friend and boss, Nick Adams had mentioned once. You will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ You will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ As someone said, ‘You don’t lose the race when you fall. You lose the race when you fail to rise.’ As long as you rise and keep running, you are in the race. But if you remain down, then you are out of the race. Who decides whether you rise or not?

We are brought up wrong. In many more ways than one. Let me give you an example. Someone told me a very tragic story about a highly successful Indian businessman in the US, who one day, shot himself, his wife and two children, obviously not in that order. When the case was analyzed, it turned out that he had fallen on hard times and though he had property which he could sell to settle his debts, he would have been reduced to penury and would have had to start all over again. He chose instead to end it all and killed his whole family as well. Someone commented on this story and said, “The problem is that he was taught how to deal with success, not with failure. We must learn how to deal with failure.” That may sound a bit like loser-talk; learn how to deal with failure? Think about it while I tell you another story.

This is about Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric. The story goes that one night Edison’s famous laboratory caught fire. It was housed in a separate building and before anyone was alerted and could do anything, the whole building and everything inside was a huge conflagration. Edison’s son, Thomas Alva Jr. said, “I was very anxious about my Dad and rushed to see where he was. This was his entire life’s work going up in flames and I was afraid that he would perhaps do something drastic at this tragedy. When I found him, he was standing with his hands folded behind his back, watching the fire. He saw me and said, “Go call your Mom. She is not going to see such a magnificent fire in a hurry.” Thomas Alva says, “I couldn’t help myself but ask him, “But Dad, that is your entire life’s work!” Thomas Edison replied, “Tell me, how many people have the chance to have all their mistakes erased at once? Now go and call your Mother.”

I said that we are brought up wrong because we are conditioned to seek outcomes and to not only feel sad, glad, bad, mad based on them but to judge ourselves on the basis of results. Now, don’t get me wrong. Especially those who know me and know how focused on results I myself, am. I am not against focusing on results, but on focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else. I submit that if you focus on the result alone, that can be detrimental to the result itself and so it is a self-defeating exercise.

What must I focus on, if not on the result? You ask.

Focus on the process. Focus on the way. Enjoy the effort. Monitor what you are doing and how you are doing it. Put metrics on the effort and as I said, enjoy it. The reality of life is that there are no final results. Every result is like a rest spot in a marathon. You can stop for a bit, while the rules of the game get changed. Then you run again. Not in the marathon; in life. The truth is that most of our life, we are going to be engaged in the process. Most of our time, all our effort and resources are going to be engaged on the way to get to our destination. If we don’t enjoy that, then we are going to be very miserable. But if we enjoy the journey, then we will live a very happy life. As for the destination, well, the right road will get you there, but only if you keep walking. So, Johnny Walker, keep walking.

In Guyana I lived in a small mining town called Kwakwani, which clung to the bank of the Berbice River, with the ever-present forest threatening to engulf it in an unwary moment. We generated our own electricity using a generator that had a huge flywheel to take care of providing energy for the engine after it delivers the power stroke. Look it up if you are interested in the role of the flywheel in power generation. My point however is different. The flywheel, for those who have never seen one, is a huge wheel with spokes. The one in Kwakwani had a diameter of 30 feet and was made of cast iron. It was a massive piece of machinery. We never allowed the engine to stop but on the annual maintenance day, when the engine had to be stopped for a few hours, the sight of the restarting was very amazing and instructive. To get the flywheel to start turning, it took a huge effort because it was so heavy. After applying all the effort, it would turn just slightly. Sometimes it would simply settle back in place, a heartbreaking thing to see for those who had bust a gut to get it to move. But you never gave up because you knew one thing and that was, that once it started turning, it would go on turning literally forever. If those trying to get the flywheel to move, focus on results, they will lose heart, because for the longest while there are no results, despite all your effort. But if they focus on the process, see if they are pushing hard enough, do whatever it takes to keep pushing, then the result is inevitable and then all they need to do is to stand by and watch it happen.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

My most inspirational creatures in the wild are small birds. Birds which are so small that when they perch on a blade of grass, it doesn’t bend with their weight. These birds, their eggs and young, are prey and food for everything that eats meat. And they can’t do anything to defend themselves or to protect their young. Yet they thrive. How do they do that? They do it by focusing on the process.

The Bulbul, my teacher

Here is my conversation with one of them, who perched on a little twig right before me and my camera in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, with a neatly tied blade of grass in her beak. “How do you do it?” I asked.

“I am a bird. It is my job to build a nest and raise young. I do that job to the best of my ability. If in the process, my nest is destroyed, I simply start building again. If I build the nest and lay eggs but before they can hatch a tree snake, a rat, a monitor lizard or anything else finds my nest, then I escape and let the predator eat the eggs. I can’t help it. I can’t protect them. But once the predator has left, I build another nest and I lay some more eggs and I incubate them. It is heartbreaking when predators find my nest with my young in it. Once again, I must leave and watch my babies being eaten before my eyes. But then what do I do? I build another nest. I lay some more eggs and I raise some more babies. That is why in the end, I survive and my tribe increases.”

I am in my nest but you can’t see me

I ask you, ‘Have you ever seen a depressed Bulbul?’ I haven’t. They have no time for depression. They never give up. They know what they are supposed to do. They do it until they succeed. No matter how many times they fail in the process. No matter how long it takes. They keep at it until they succeed. And in the end, they always succeed.

I asked, “Is my job done?”

He answered, “If you are alive, it’s not.”