Jul 28, 2013

The Chivalry Paradox

A friend recently shared a joke on Facebook about a woman who complained about her boss not treating her with the same respect he shows the guys, and went on to tell him how she'd rejected a matrimonial prospect because he wasn't taller than her. The irony of the double standards was lost on her.

That post has prompted me to write this. As society is evolving, the gender divide and rules governing behaviour seem to be evolving constantly and it's especially tough on us guys to keep up. I call this the chivalry paradox, and I'll quote a couple of examples here.

When you're out for a meal with a girl, how should one deal with the bill? Traditionally, the guy's supposed to pay. A lot of women expect this and would label you a total cheap-ass if you suggested anything else! But then, there's the equality brigade who see no reason for you to pick up their tab, and are offended by any such suggestions.

Then there are handshakes. Some women offer you their hand like you're a nineteenth century knight about to kiss it. If you don't read it right, you'll probably seem like an uncivilized ape crushing a feather. Others, especially those in serious careers, offer a firm handshake. If you go light, they'll think you're a sissy. The impression is made in the first instant and by the time you adjust your grip, it's already too late.

The bigger problem is that there is no fail-safe approach. You can't decide 'this is what I'll always do - some will like it and others won't mind'. Whichever route you take could land you in trouble and you could find yourself at the receiving end of a diatribe.

Personally, I've decided to always pay the bill when I meet someone for the first time. If we meet again, the assumption is we're friends and then we ought to go Dutch. Handshakes? I still have no answer. I just try and avoid them altogether!

So, here's the take-away for women. Please understand that the lines are blurry and all over the place. We're still trying to figure things out. If we make a mistake, it's generally an honest one - so please don't get mad and launch into a tirade. Just call it out, and if you think it's necessary, explain to us what we did wrong. We'll try not to repeat it.

For guys, I'm going to offer the same advice I always do when my friends - for some unfathomable reason - decide to share their problems with me. 'Just grow a pair and deal with it, da!'

Jul 23, 2013

Yesterday & tomorrow...

When I was in school, life seemed tough. Getting up every morning, standing in murderous heat or cold fog for an hour during the assembly, attending hours of classes and preparing for exams for many years in succession. I was promised - just work hard now to get into an IIT and everything will be good. My future would be secure, college is more fun than school etc.

College was no joyride. The peer group was extremely competitive, courses rigorous and every exam was like writing JEE again. There were still hours of mind-numbing classes and labs - every longer than school, actually - and living conditions in the hostels were spartan. The promise then was - just get into a good PG course, or get a job - and you'll reap the benefits of the IIT tag.

IIM was crazier. The schedule was hectic as hell and getting good results was no easier. If anything, there was added pressure of placements and expectations. Just get a day one job during placements, and you will rule the world - was the promise.

The first job sucked. Unlike college, you couldn't bunk at all nor make mistakes. I felt like a small insignificant cog in the wheel whose presence didn't really make much of a difference either way - but I had to be there every day, 9 hours a day, fighting some issue or the other. And life in Bhopal wasn't exciting at all for a young bachelor. I thought let me just switch to a profession I can be passionate about, and make an impact - and I'll get a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Also, moving to a more 'happening' city will make life fun again.

While I liked the new job, it was cruel. Waking up every day worried about a new bomb in the inbox (a recent mistake being caught), working thanklessly from 10am-10pm and yet not getting everything done perfectly, and returning home every night with a sullen face was hardly what I'd always dreamt of. The weekends presented their own questions - what to do, where to go, who can get us in (most places we wanted to visit only allowed couple on weekends, and we were 3 single guys sharing an apartment). Let me just struggle through these first few years, build my reputation and find good company - and all will be well, I thought.

A few years down the line, I'm well-settled in my job but the challenges are even bigger now. To successfully achieve the results I want, I have to depend on other people and factors that aren't all in my control and it's a long game that'll span across many years. I had great friends but most of them have moved out of Bangalore now and/or are married, so it feels rather lonely. Let me just find a good life partner and move into my new home (will be built by year-end) and things will get better, is what I'm telling myself now.

Does it ever really get easier and better? Do we ever feel like we're on top of everything, or does the promise of a happier future remain forever elusive?

The thing that makes it worse is nostalgia. Now when I think back to school days, all I remember is lots of friends, 2 hours of cricket/tennis/swimming every evening, discussing crushes with friends, and my parents taking care of all the big issues like household finances. When I think of college, I remember the bike rides for fried chicken in the city, watching the Shawshank Redemption in my room, night-outs on the hostel roof discussing the concept of 'God' with my best friends, and my first girlfriend. PG memories are all about enjoying every hour of sleep managed at weird times & locations, creating the success that was Manfest, nailing some presentation/assignment and feeling like a genius, all the kebab-paratha, late night AOE games and being happy with placements. When I think back to my early bachelor days, all I remember is the appreciation received after a big achievement at work, TT at home, the wild weekend parties, the trips to Goa, Singapore etc., witnessing some dear friends' love stories bloom into happy family lives, the lone-wolf British summer holiday and all the fun I had.

Nearly everyone I know misses the glorious days when they were younger and wish they could re-live those.

Is that how we're programmed? To romanticize the past memories, and hope for a better future, but remain forever frustrated with the present? Pretty lousy design, innit? The gurus always say 'Live in the present moment'. There are a few moments when one experiences bliss, not missing the past nor worrying about the future - but those are so, so rare. The present moment almost always seems to suck!

Is it just me, or does everyone relate to this? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below...

Jul 16, 2013

She's always in there...

The General's daughter answers every phone call with a polite and formal 'Hello, good evening'. Every time, she wishes it's the boy who takes her on a journey into another world...

The college rebel often shows people the middle finger. She looks longingly at the slides and swings every time she drives past her old school...

The advertising intern works 12-hour weekdays and 8-hour Saturdays while preparing for her MBA. She tells her student boyfriend it's a company phone and calls are free, so he doesn't feel guilty about the bills burning through her entire salary...

The young doctor studies for her MD in the day and works through crazy night shifts at the hospital. One midnight, she makes it a point to call her sister's boyfriend to tell him 'Sing to her! Dance with her! Make her feel special on her birthday'...

The dentist is the eldest of three siblings and an epitome of obedience and responsibility. She rounds up all her girlfriends at the Bangkok Suvarnabhoomi airport for a picture of all their shoes to start a new college tradition...

The legal professional stoically takes notes during heated meetings between lawyers and tax evaders. She asks a stranger to scribble her name in the sand in Malayalam so she can pose with it on her beach holiday...

The customer support associate uses the chat handle 'attitudez las page'. She wants him to hold her close at the concert, and show the grope-prone crowd she 'belongs' to him...

The software engineer lambastes a bunch of boys teasing her about looking 'chinki'. She secretly flew down from London to spend a special weekend in Goa with him...

The former software professional is reading for her Master's degree in cold, cold Canada. She misses the day she got lost in a nearby railway yard and all the elders freaked out...

The senior manager who intimidates most at a software behemoth. She jumps and claps and screams 'I won! I won! I won!' when her favorite young German wins his first Formula One world championship...

The blogger rips apart hypocritical men who appreciate successful women at work but don't want to marry someone who might challenge them. She later confesses that all she's dreamt of since childhood was a big, memorable wedding with scores of relatives dancing with joy...

The creative freelancer's spirit cannot be contained within corporate walls. She feels deeply hurt when someone questions the proud institution daddy devoted his life to...

The superstar banker is known to be a grammar Nazi and was nicknamed Hitler by her juniors on a college fest committee. She listens to romantic Punjabi songs from Yash Raj movies and fantasizes about her own Mirza sweeping her off her feet someday...

Every woman is special. Beneath even the toughest of exteriors, there's always a love-able little girl hidden in there somewhere, for someone to find.

Jul 15, 2013

The Leap of Faith

(Credit: Central idea inspired by this article)

A short while back, I wrote about the spark early in a relationship, and how I thought it was not nearly as important as people usually believe. I did not mean to suggest that its presence is always misleading, or its absence completely immaterial. I just meant that one should give things time to become clearer and only then can they be sure whether or not something is meant to be.

The reverse problem is people waiting forever to be 'sure' and never quite getting there. In relationships, as in many other things in life, one can never be 100% sure they're making the right decision about the future because it is - and always will be - the great unknown. Getting to know another person is a life-long process and it can't be completed before you make a commitment. That's actually a good thing, because it leaves you a lot to look forward to later. But at some point, you just have to trust you know enough about the other person, and take a leap of faith!

While in college, I was in a great relationship with an extraordinary girl that lasted many years. When I graduated and had to leave for another city, we had known each other long enough and well enough to be as sure as was possible - that if we decided to be together, things would work out well. Unfortunately, we were both very young and just couldn't take that leap and commit to a future together. Things fizzled out, we moved on and grew up to become very different people. Today, I hope I will have a better future than I could have had, but the odds appear long.

After finishing B-School, I didn't like the first job I got. The company was great (both reputation and reality), the money was very good and I did fairly well, even achieving some records, but it was a manufacturing operations role which I just didn't enjoy and wanted to do something else. I resigned after ~10 months, without another job offer in hand. I was offered several tempting options by my manager who was desperate to retain me, and I wasn't having much luck with my first few job applications elsewhere. But I stuck to my decision, and took a leap of faith. Nearly 3 painful months later, I landed a job with a start-up in Bangalore and everything worked out brilliantly after that. I loved my new job, new company, new city, new life - everything!

It doesn't always work out, otherwise it'd be a walk in the park and not a leap. I recently took another one and ended up bruising my knees. That's a story for another time. But even when things don't work out, you just have to pick yourself up and motor on.

The simple truth is - if you want to achieve something great, you will at some point have to take some risks. Playing safe, having backup plans etc. can provide you security, but will also lull you into mediocrity and irrelevance.

To land on one's feet and not in the abyss, one must know the difference between irresponsible, mindless punts and well-informed, calculated risks. Faith must never be blind. This is the secret of successful businessmen like Richard Branson. They take many risks and not all of them pay off. What they ensure is that the potential downside of any risky venture is limited. When they fail, you don't really notice it because the loss is small. When they succeed, it makes the headlines. The mistake most unsuccessful gamblers make is getting carried away with the potential size of the bonanza, but not covering their backs for the scenario when things go wrong.

When you're standing at the edge of the cliff, you must be able to see where you want to land. You must have good reason to believe you can cross the chasm, preferably from your own history. When in doubt, it's often helpful to seek the opinion of a good friend who knows you well because it's easier for them to be objective in their assessment.

But there will come a point at which no more information will be available. You could be reasonably confident but not certain, and you'll find yourself standing at the edge with a choice. You could stand there forever and let life pass you by. Or you could turn away, and always keep wondering about what might have been. The best thing to do is to just jump and pray...

Jul 9, 2013

Questioning our medical education setup

Last year, Satyamev Jayate devoted an episode to the issue of generic drugs and doctors being motivated by commissions and profits to mislead their patients at times. Through acquaintances and Facebook etc., most of us would have heard tales of hospitals trying to rip people off by making patients undergo unnecessary tests and treatments. I've felt, for a while, that the root cause of these problems is something else.

Think about this. A typical engineer finishes college by the age of 22 and starts earning decently. S/he doesn't usually have a large loan to pay off. Adding on a masters degree is relatively easy and tends to add very significantly to their career prospects and earning potential. By age 30, most engineer-MBAs have a comfortable lifestyle and are able to afford a car and are on the verge of buying a house.

Doctors, on the other hand, generally don't finish their MBBS course before 23. Add a year of internship and preparation for MD entrance exams. 2 more years of MD, and then typically another year or two of further study or residency. Doctors are a few years older when they start their first jobs which typically pay peanuts. By the time they start earning a good amount, they're generally close to the age of 30. Unlike the engineer-MBAs, they don't already have big savings, instead they have huge loans to pay back.

Also, the medical education system in India is ridiculously corrupt. There are few 'merit' seats available. The majority of students have to make 'donations' to get in, and the amounts payable for more popular courses (specialties) are extortionate. This is true at every stage - bachelors, masters, fellowship, and sometimes even for getting passing grades, especially for final year courses.

By their early 30s, most doctors - who started with good intentions and a desire to do good and help others - give in to the temptation of dirty money. If you were earning less than your peers from school, and had already borne an additional cost of ~50 lakhs to reach this point - wouldn't you be tempted to compromise some of your values? Most people's conscience carries a price-tag, and it's usually lower.

What created this sorry situation in the first place? A simple mismatch between demand and supply. When I attended school in the 90s, the number of engineering and medical aspirants was roughly equal. I doubt if the scale has tilted too far since then. Last year, India produced 1.5 million engineers and 300,000 MBAs - that is more than USA and China combined in each case. Doctors? 33,000. That's about fifty engineers to each doctor. The number of seats available in medical colleges is several orders of magnitude lower than other streams, and with this kind of scarcity, corruption creeping into the system was quite inevitable.

There are also some other unfortunate consequences of this, which it isn't politically correct to mention, but I will do so here. Many failed MBBS aspirants now end up joining BDS, BHMS, BAMS or other such courses. I guess this helps them meet their own aspirations of becoming 'doctors', but judging by their employment trends, I'm not sure this serves a much bigger purpose for anyone.

Also, now that nearly half the medical college seats are reserved for 'quota' students, and many of the others are purchased by students with the most resourceful parents and not necessarily the most merit, the quality of the output is dubious. I, for one, avoid doctors with anything less than a solid reputation built over more than a decade. Most people don't have this luxury, and by lowering standards in medical education, their lives are being put at risk.

What makes this all the more appalling is that we need many more and better doctors, especially for primary care. We have the second (not for much longer) largest population in the world, and many national health indicators are among the worst in the world. The government's budgetary allocation for healthcare is also among the lowest in the world in percentage terms. They just don't seem to care. The situation desperately calls for more medical colleges to be set up and the whole system being cleansed and re-vitalized. I can't imagine voters being unhappy about the government setting up more teaching hospitals and/or medical colleges, so I don't understand why it isn't happening.

If the government can't handle this, they should encourage the private sector to do so. Why can't the kind of incentives that were offered to IT companies and BPOs be offered to private teaching hospitals now? Why can't PPP models be explored like they are for other kinds of infrastructure? Shouldn't this be a higher priority than messing around with the IIT JEE exam pattern every few years?

Caveats: This post makes several generalizations and no reader should take it personally. Also, I'm no policy expert and this is my opinion, based on common knowledge and common-sense rather than thorough research - please bear that in mind when you comment. If you agree that some of the issues and questions raised are valid, please share it forward because we need to push for things to change.

Jul 1, 2013

Tough. 6.

Really? Another test? Now?

Ok. I've faced many longer, tougher ordeals. Personal, professional, academic, romantic... and I have prevailed every single time.

Bring it on.