Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Yearning for the World :)

So, just to relate to the last post, I had an awesome Australian trip. It is a superb, beautiful country, and combined with the sincere efforts of my best friends (almost all of them ex-colleagues, come to think of it - the gifts of Grameenphone! :)) to show me the best, I had 13 days of the best time and a memorable vacation, to be sure!

I was going through some interesting expat blogs, for example a Singaporean migrating to Australia here, and felt an urge to update this blog! :) I do write a lot in my draft notes and am a bit of a graphomaniac, but this blog has been a pretty consistent chronicle for a good while now. :) You can kind of see the arc of the last 5-7 years of my life here - though in glimpses. :)

On 27th August 2014, I am feeling fine enough. My life situation is quite fine materialistically. Mentally, I am the kind of person who is of the opinion that people can optimize any aspect of their life anywhere, but I do feel the increased opportunity cost of staying in my current scenario. To state clearly: I earn a pretty good deal of money working for Grameenphone in a low-mid level position. I travel enough, for both work and personal purposes. My personal life is fine enough by my own standards. I am approaching 32. And I am starting to feel an urge to test out new waters.

I know there can be many pitfalls, and I was actually reading up on it here (Irish woman in Australia), a 35-year long yearning of an Irish guy for his country and how it got cured and this post from a Singaporean guy here. This kind of reading is instant gratification for the searching soul. :)

I do not know what decision will ultimately come out. I am not sure this kind of decisionmaking can even be documented as it goes on; I suspect it does, but then it depends on who you would like to expose it to. :) We will see. But I do know some broad level factors relevant to this discussion.

One Factor: As Po Bronson says, it's so difficult to quit a good thing. And I have a very good thing going here in Dhaka! Whereas I will agree that I might be a bit bored, I also like the security, the moderate challenge, the known environment, the economic freedom, the family support and appreciation.

At the same time, Dhaka is not the most livable of cities. I kind of hate to admit it, true. :) I find great joy in adapting to it and making the most of it, and I believe I have broadly succeeded in this. Most of my moments I have been able to find a lot of joy despite Dhaka's many limitations. I strongly believe that human civilization has progressed enough that even in third world countries, and especially in cities like Dhaka where the best of the third world converge, there should be more than enough to make for a great life.

But indeed, my travel through other countries have shown me what heights human beings can achieve, and some countries have been especially powerful in that regard, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia come to mind. I know I can with determination be a member of these societies as well, but there is a significant cost involved too, and this is not only a monetary or physical cost, but a psychological one as well. I do not like my 'greed' to belong to these societies, yet I am driven by it as any evolved being would be.

The 'costs', I also feel, are a matter of perspective, and do start to make sense as character building exercises, especially given my condition as a single person who just don't want to keep earning money in a corner of the third world but wants to explore the first world and many other parts of the world as well, for which the first world has the most enablers. It will require effort, and as noted time and again it still has costs (reminds me of someone who said that the problem with human beings is their inability to sit in a room for any extended period of time! :)).

For now, I have decided to chase this as a secondary concern, as opposed to a primary one overriding my current life concerns and disrupting these, in my spare time. I would be interested to see where it leads to. :)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chronicles Before An Australian Trip!

I will be leaving for Australia tomorrow. People tend to only look at the fun part of the trip, but the low-level stress accompanying the preparation while my full work schedule is ongoing is proving to be a mild challenge. :)

And then there is the Witcher 2. The graphics of this game is like a total drug. I have spent tens of minutes just gawking at it! I do not recall seeing more graphically sophisticated gaming environments. And having two gaming desktops support this at Ultra, one at 1980*1020, is super awesome! Too bad I can't carry these desktops with my luggage! The opportunity cost of not being able to play this game at Ultra will be accounted for and is adding to the low-level prep-stress I am facing. :( Oh the travails of loving something!

And then there is the clothing. My thumb rule is that it should be done in 20 minutes. But because it is the Southern Hemisphere and it is Winter, I had to bring out those big bad jackets. And many Bangladeshi t-shirts and fatuas might not be appropriate, which poses a slight problem. But anyway, I will look into those once I get back home. I am sure I can make do! :)

But after everything, nothing really compares to a great new continent and three great new cities, folks! :D Excited! :)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

6 Years And 10 Months Back

When I first joined corporate 6 years and 10 months back, I did so somewhat reluctantly. I was not gushing with enthusiasm, to be honest. Getting a job was a prestige factor, yes (nearly everyone from my school gets immediately employed, and if you don’t, that’s a huge downer), and our batch was blessed with a glut of jobs, and I scored one definite hit very early (I believe I learned of my acceptance end of January, 2007, which was the second earliest in my batch). But the first few days at work was a little horrifying. There’s this 800 square feet 9th floor office, clean and nice, agreed, but without any views, and you had to spend Eight to Five within this place! At around noontime, keeping my eyes open would be a tremendous struggle.

Anyway, those are material for another write-up. What I guess I am trying to get at here is how radically my ‘self’ has modified. I was reading a book about a terminal disease which changed a person, and then it struck me how my professional life has modified me (or not) as a human being. A written reflection in the stream of consciousness style proceeds. ;)

I was never a person who saw deeply into the future. More the stumble-upon kind of personality, this one. I never knew I would study in Notre Dame College. I never heard of IBA until the day my father got the form bought. I never aspired to have a corporate career. But then let’s be realistic, what is a person from IBA to do except having a corporate career? Actually, believe it or not, my aspiration was to be a school teacher. A school teacher of St. Joseph’s High School, to be specific, and this continued into fourth year, IBA. I am not sure if I am overplaying this, but I have vivid memories of telling my father that I am not going to continue in Corporate and would be done after my internship. Looking back, was it an unrealistic dream? I was aware of the challenges. I was certainly not headed for that life. Yeah, perhaps it was.

And then I kind of went with the flow. I tell myself that I was having too much fun. And if you are into psychology, and especially into Daniel Gilbert, you know very well that ‘telling myself’ and ‘it actually happening to me’ is synonymous. I was enjoying it way too much.

And I guess six years and ten months later that is the truth. I enjoy corporate way too much. The constant churn, the race to outperform, the smoothified jargon, the rat race, the compensation (it’s pretty good, come on!), the characters, the clashes, the next six months which are always going to be crucial, the business trips, the vacations! It’s intensely addictive, and well designed to be so (and hence caution is also necessary)! It’s a game you can play.

But then that is life itself. You can play life too. But play is not always play. You will be put to the test. You will near burnout. You have to manage this.

And I guess ten hours a day with skilled people will rapidly allow an evolution of these skills. And that’s the second point I am going to mention: the growth. I kind of agree with Clayton Christensen here, the growth is what can make management the noblest profession. I love this growth. Of course I do not know if other fields such as music, litigation and teaching formalize this to this extent, but I am grateful to my many mentors, sometimes unknowingly, who have made me grow in corporate. While I have not worked in other fields, I did go through  18+ years of education, and the learning curve is of a separate magnitude altogether in Corporate.

In that regard, my fundamental personality has not changed. It has smoothened and sharpened. I always wanted to learn, and my organization has given me plenty of opportunities to do so.

What is going to happen six years and ten months from now?

Life seems so intense right now. I get so much done in each day, I cannot imagine doing this much in one day seven years back. And life takes many unexpected turns everyday, and to a great extent many positive and delightful turns too (I know there is some cognitive bias at play here, but I elected to allow stream of consciousness to flow, and hence if we accentuate the positive, corporate style, so be it :)).

At the same time, on a broad level, I can see that it isn’t too radical a change. This might as well be because I have a relatively static personal life, and I am highly and subconsciously intent on maintaining its stability on a broad level.

On a career dimension, I can see the growth (no no, not about promotions, this is the growth in what Cal Newport calls ‘rare and valuable skills’).

I can also, blessedly, see that I am thoroughly enjoying this. I have perhaps really enjoyed 75%+ of my time in corporate, which is awesome! I believe this broad trend might hold. I think the growth curve will continue for the aforementioned future. There is still a huge amount to learn and absorb. I do not really see myself quitting this life. Neither do I see myself making massive changes in my personal life, but when it comes to that aspect, it’s hugely unpredictable too. But looking back over my 31 years, I note my tremendous stability and the nature of playing it safe. Whatever and however much I say, I do not rock the boat too much. And I am not really unhappy with the state of things.

To summarize, not much has changed in the last 82 months, except tremendous growth, and general joy. That’s on a macro level. I know it sounds boring, but not making major life changes can still lead to general, if not intense happiness. On a personal level, I believe I have started to learn the art of turning moderate pleasures into intense pleasures and appreciating life’s small joys.

There is a lot to feel good about. There is a lot of feel bad about; all those trillions of opportunity costs. But as William James said, we are what we focus into, and I choose to focus on the generally bright side. :)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Views on Jamaat

1.      These political topics are contentious, and there is a certain queasiness whenever I start writing about these. At the same time, these are important topics one should discuss, and prepare to grow through the pain it might cause. It is easy to focus on things far away both geographically (Syria) and historically (Rome). It is far tougher to challenge oneself on the turmoil and context of one’s present situation. This perhaps is because of the risk inherent in challenging one’s closely held beliefs and self-concept. I have read some interesting books on how one’s self-concept is more important than even the basic needs, one reason special-ops agents for the CIA/KGB/MI6/Mossad are intensively trained on being flexible about core self-concept. Our lives are inherently contradictory, and decisions are indeed contextual, but sometimes, looking at the broader picture perhaps might bring better sanity to our discourse regarding such decisions. So please consider this a meditation, a stream-of-thought self-discourse on the quest to gain some clarity. I will probably not have conclusive answers here, but I am definitely going to ask a lot of questions focusing on a specific question at a time.

2.      Again, these are topics where readers might have a high inclination to advice or preach, which is okay, and that doesn’t even need to meet any standards – you can say whatever you like, only that there is no comment section in this blog. :) Of course you can write me a mail or have a follow-up on Facebook, but I reserve the right to not respond back. But before that, dear reader, I hope you have noted how perspective shifts the political debate, and on the very same event one can have a liberal interpretation and a conservative interpretation both of which might be equally valid to the relevant individuals. This is why we have democracy; individuals’ beliefs are incredibly hard to change, and evidence doesn’t really do much in this regard because acceptance of evidence is a question of perspective; and hence majority rule in democracies. I urge readers to be aware of this and not to get too confrontational even if you are planning to present your views and convert me to these. After all, only I have lived my life and the many, incomplete and contradictory variables shaping my decision are unknown to you. :)

3.      Let’s get to the point: this is how my mind most obviously defines Jamaat when I start to even think analytically: they lost. Like it or not, the world of politics and public perception is built on certain bedrocks, which do change over time, and the last big earthquake in that regard in Bangladesh has been the 1971 war. Jamaat lost there. I think that is pretty strongly grounded in fact. Of course you can take a broader view of history and of the ideas Jamaat is based on, but the current debate is very much shaped by the 1971 context. So there is an inherent and crippling disadvantage for Jamaat there. In fact, I think the disadvantage is so horribly crippling that they should have rebranded at the very least. That they did not do that and still continue as almost the original subcontinent-wide brand is almost worthy of admiration! That is, until you understand that it is not really working out except within a small fragment of the population. :)

4.      And then comes the obvious question of justice. Okay, you lost. You should be extinct, but you are not. But you have done bad things, and you are trying to re-establish yourself. You have elements of the new generation, but the old generation also remains. Perhaps it’s a minuscule amount, but the taint didn’t stop, it spread. Had you compromised on any one area, it would have sufficed, but you aren’t going to do that at all – you want to remain as Jamaat and move on. That can create a lot of reaction and outrage. And that can offend our sense of justice. That certainly offends my sense of justice.

5.      Many would make an argument about the actual evidence against Jamaat. Of course I am not an expert. But I am not even going to go into that debate and rather ask: is politics really a game of evidence? Isn’t there already a very adverse narrative about Jamaat among the large established, educated intelligentsia of Bangladesh? Doesn’t it make more sense for even Jamaat to address this by rebranding? I mean, look at Bangladesh Muslim League. They know they have lost and accordingly become extinct (and yes I know how docile it sounds, but they probably tried and failed). Jamaat has decided not to do so and through a variety of means have resurfaced, and even had an alliance with Awami League once! That is pretty astonishing and impressive. But the fact remains that you cannot fool all the people all the time! Even Ershad and Jatiya party recognizes that, right? Jatiya Party is now an entity of convenience, and is split into many factions. And hence I question Jamaat’s ‘great heroism’ regarding re-establishment of its brand. You can fight the fight, but exactly what for? You want to bring true and pure Islam to Bangladesh? Rebrand accordingly, repent for past mistakes if required, and do it in a structured way? Why this fascination for the old brand? Doesn’t Islam itself ask its messengers to be effective?

6.      And now that I ask that question, I can see this pattern in Jamaat’s mother organization, the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon, or Muslim Brotherhood, and its offshoots in other countries as well, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. There are some very interesting scopes of analogy, but I am going to be very short here (and hence will oversimplify): they failed in Egypt most recently, correct? Can we broadly attribute this to a high reluctance to rebrand? If you are not convinced, how about the Turkish AKP, which comes from the same roots and has had astonishing success in Turkey of all places? Perhaps they have been able to do so because they rebranded? Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t it a sincere *and* far more practical approach to make a break with the past and rebrand?

7.      Of course, this entire discourse assumes that Jamaat is a traditional political party which wants to win and thereby act on its ideology for the supposed greater good of a certain constituency while also fulfilling certain personal ambitions. That might *not* be so. I have not studied its constitution or the history of this specific formation in detail. I am working from common axioms here. Common axioms suggest that Islam is a pretty pragmatic religion, which can easily be derived from broader Islamic history, if nothing else. And Jamaat doesn’t have a monopoly on Islam. There are many other Islamic parties in Bangladesh, of course, which are even less effective than Jamaat. Perhaps that suggests Jamaat that they are the big fish in that specific pond and that gives them leverage? But that again makes me ask the question: Jamaat wants Islam to win, right? So then why cater to the worst anti-Islamic stereotypes with its burden of history? Dissolve and reorganize, and it would be ideal if you repent while you are at it. Or now is Jamaat going to use all its organizational strength to save the skin of a mere handful, and when I say that I can see some mental puzzles being resolved. Isn’t it telling that Jamaat has never come close to even 10% of the vote of a Muslim majority country? Even 5%? Shouldn’t ‘true Muslims’ of Bangladesh ask themselves about its raison d’etre then – if it is indeed to progress Islam or to leverage a specific group of people? 

Thursday, January 09, 2014

'The Work Delusion' :)

1.      ‘Work’, and especially ‘corporate work’, never seemed like the best of ideas to me. IBA was pretty comfortable and lax in general; I’d wake up and decide if I want to go to a class. It was a government institute where attendance mattered tangentially and then only for a handful of courses! From IBA to corporate seemed like a pretty huge jump in terms of the effort quotient. I saw our seniors and my relatives working in corporate – vanishing inside gloomy buildings from 8 to 8 and went ‘Waaagh – who wants to work for corporate?’ I didn’t know much about good employment models at that time (not the most forward looking B-School student ;)), but teaching seemed like a good idea to me. I wanted to teach at my school, St. Joseph, or my college (the equivalent of the last 2 years of high school in Bangladesh), Notre Dame, both well known (and Catholic-run) institutions in Bangladesh. I wanted to teach, perhaps, but mostly I wanted to be lazy and work as little as possible, I guess.

2.      But IBA had a mandatory internship requirement to complete the course (I guess the wise folks who design these things know that bloodhounds need the taste of blood), and I had to do it somewhere! I am going to tell the story of how I ended up in my organization someplace and at another time :P, but for now it’s good for you folks to know that I made a deal with my father to complete my internship at my organization and call it a day for corporate work! ;)

3.      My writing is punctuated by what I call with much grandiosity (and oversimplification) ‘philosophy’, and I must have another tidbit here before proceeding: memory is a tricky thing. You would know it for sure if you read Daniel Gilbert’s ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, where he gives evidence as to how we morph our past according to the present (context). Memory is even at its best tremendously inaccurate – we store memories not in their entirety, but as highlight reels, so we mostly remember the highs and lows. So whatever I say here is suspect, but as Gilbert says, there is no other way to transcribe objective memories yet (Google Glass was yet to be invented!). So take me at my word (because no one else lived my life and you do not have an option), but with a pinch of salt!

4.      Three months at my organization was pretty fun, and my internship report went very well indeed. Well, I could have left, but my organization was paying me a pretty nice amount (as Nassim Taleb says: The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary :)) and it was fun to work, so I decided to not go through the effort of giving it all up. Yeah, I was not very focused on any career beyond my organization, as usual, mostly due to the sheer inertia of laziness. So once I started working, that became the default state. My personal narrative of this first 1.5 years is of sheer bliss, almost! I am pretty sure a close examination would find that it was not that blissful and kind of regular, but that’s how the narrative goes in my own version of the history of me! :P

5.      Of course, the first 3 weeks was an adjustment period. I had never done 9-10 hours of anything at a stretch. School and College was not that long, and you could elope rather easily (I regularly used to elope NDC after the fourth period!), and there were games at tiffin period and constant ‘interaction’ with all the friends and of course some mesmerizing teachers. IBA, as I said before, was pretty comfortable excepting the exam spikes and some courses. But in Corporate, in my organization, I had to come and sit in Building 3 Level 9 from 8:30 to 5:00 no matter what. And most (okay, no, many, or rather, quite a few :)) people would stay *beyond* 5 PM and if I left at 5 would look at me like I was from Mars! That was totally beyond me!! People would not leave these 750 square feet of windowless space even during lunch hour! And of course for the first few weeks I really did not have any work to focus on and spend the time, and I was used to having a siesta at daytime and at work you cannot have siestas, and how long can you spend reading books and articles and work manuals and whatnot! Others were kind of busy of course and bothering these people was not much of an option. Some crumbs of work did get thrown at me and I did these ferociously fast, but I was kind of desperate – is it going to be this boring? And then two things happened: I started to develop camaraderie with the other ‘prisoners’ and started to be assigned ‘work’. :) Or at least that’s the narrative I am constructing now! ;)

6.      I am going to jump a bit ahead of myself here and say that my worst ever period at work was when I had nothing to do. I used to hanker for it – a period when I would have no work and I will just go and sit and perhaps doze off. :P Almost like the three month leave after SSC (which actually went incredibly awesomely for me with many games and a superfast gaming computer, although the long-planned for travelling across Bangladesh never happened!) But when it actually came (our department head was leaving and there was a transition for almost a quarter), it was pretty damn demoralizing! I even used to bring my personal laptop at work and play games but it would feel so out of place! So if there is anything at work I really am afraid of it is no work when I go to work! Good work makes work worth it, and excepting about 5-6 months most of my 6.8 year career has been pretty rewarding in this regard.

7.      There is another important component that often affected me negatively at work, and hiding it is no good, although we often do try to hide this, which is perhaps prudent. It is called ‘point of parity’ in psychological terms, ‘participating in the rat race’ in the not-so-ornate language of philosophy and being competitive/ envious/ jealous in common language. Well folks, by default I am pretty jealous, and I know the received wisdom is to not be envious/ jealous, but listening and converting this to action regarding this specific nugget of wisdom took me thirty one frigging years, and I still haven’t fully done it I am afraid. :) We were one brother and one sister and I used to be jealous when my dad/ mom/ aunt used to focus extra attention on my cute little sister. ;) I was jealous when my parents spent extra money on my sister because she was in an English Medium school. I was jealous when my cousins got extra money during Eid and when they got a shiny new computer before me! But this was somehow different! Previously, perhaps, I could blame it on others as a matter of fact and my not-very-matured mind would be happy enough to do that. Now, I had more of an internal locus of control, and when a peer from a certain known context (say, an IBA batchmate ;)) got promoted before me, that would almost make me lose sleep over my own inadequacy! Over the last seven years, it has gotten better, much better more recently, but I still have trouble dealing with these thoughts. It is way too often that these kind of thoughts bring a toxicity to the current thoughtstream and result in a certain gloom and loss of motivation. Heck folks, I am actually envious of people who are apparently immune to such things, or rather, less ‘adversely affected’. :) I do not know, am I more sensitive to these things? I still am of the opinion that you need a certain amount of this competitiveness to both enjoy and progress in your vocation, but how much is enough and how much is too much? As for coping with these thoughts in the everyday thinking level, I believe I have improvised onto some pretty effective coping strategies. Regardless, this is one area which arouses the philosopher in me, as you can see from the length of this paragraph. Okay, I suffer from some status anxiety, dear reader. Please empathize with me, because in all probability you do too. :) [By the way, Alain de Botton has some pretty incredible things to say about this in his book ‘Status Anxiety’.]

8.      When you read the last two paragraphs, I don’t know, it might seem that I might be accentuating the negative/ ‘troublesome’ aspects of my (and perhaps the common man’s?) work life. My objective was to get these two out of the way so that I can talk about the many positives, but looks like length is going to be an issue here (more than two Word pages is enough to stop almost anyone in their tracks :)). But before letting you go today, some more 'philosophy' in the next paragraph, and I warn you, it might be sheer sophistry to some of you (and I think I have ‘primed’ you to think it as sophistry now! ;)).

9.      Okay, so I know that if you are meta-analyzing this piece you can easily title it ‘The Work Delusion’, because, dear reader, things are meaningful because *you* give meaning to them [and I think I have got the title of this write-up right here! ;)), so this suffices as an explanation for the ‘synthetic joys’ of work I was going to explain. If you are still unconvinced that work can be joyful, I recommend you watch Daniel Gilbert’s infamous TED Talk on real and synthetic happiness (just search Daniel Gilbert TED in Google; I almost have it memorized, and yes, I know, we all frigging delude ourselves everyday, and at a meta-meta-meta level even Gilbert is doing that and we are all better of being nihilists and living for the marginal utility of each moment and yada yada but I want to be frigging happy right now within my current social context!! :)) And yes folks, I believe happiness is not a long term problem, it is a short term, contextual issue which can be pretty easily manufactured by some learned mental ‘tricks’, and serendipities might as well be leveraged for this without much effort. If you follow my writing for a long while, you’d probably realize by now that a large volume of whatever I wrote is actually in search of that, producing second-hand what other searchers have produced. And I look forward to sharing more on that theme when I next get back. Adios! :)

Monday, January 06, 2014

So Why The Heck Don't I Get Married?

1.      Most people choose to live with a life partner. I am thirty one years old, and have not yet chosen to do so. This obviously exposes me to curiosity. Why don’t I get married? Why don’t I get into a relationship? Do I have any plans in this regard?

2.      Those are the expressed queries. The queries unexpressed in front of me and shared betweend confidantes might be: do I have a ‘problem’? Perhaps I am gay? Asexual? Perhaps some other physical defect? Or a mental defect?

3.      I personally do have a problem with complete disclosure, even and especially if I have socially acceptable answers ready. For example: being gay is an extremely taboo thing in Bangladesh, and is actually punishable by law. That makes me hesitate to answer about my own orientation because I feel bad when I think that just because someone has another orientation, my primitive country’s primitive laws (and that adjective applies to this instance only, in case you would like to quote) can harass him literally up to death.

4.      Also, the nature of experience is intensely individual. So who am I to measure the effectiveness or intensity of my sexual prowess? I have never compared it with anyone. Same goes with mental defect. I *think* I am a heterosexual male with good mental alacrity, but I am not absolutely sure. And I do not particularly like it when people start probing too intensely. I mean, look, every one of us do make split-second mental judgments about others and that is okay by me. But I have a strong distaste for well-meaning (generally) elders, precisely because my personal experience tells them that they tend to be buffoons who do not know about allowing life to unfold as an adventure. : )

5.      I have never been very uncomfortable with solitude. In fact, I have always wondered why people have such an issue with it. I call myself an introvert in that the wrong audience can really eat up my energy very rapidly. I have over time noted that extraversion can be a learned trait too and you can start to adjust and even enjoy other people’s company, but I still insist that introversion is my default state. There are other signs complementing this: I very rarely get bored and almost have to work at it. I am a voracious reader and reading is my main source of learning and writing is a major source of interacting. Extroverts tend not to read much and writing is pretty tedious for them. So, I generally enjoy solitude, no, I do not find it horrifying at all! : ) I do get lonely from time to time, but since I started working, even that went away. I have an office full of people to interact with and a handful of conversation partners which satisfy my social needs pretty damn well. I rather like it and it will take a lot to convince me otherwise. : )

6.      Marriage as happens in Bangladesh seems like a complete chore to me. I do not have positive ideas about it at all. Spend two million odd taka to host four big programs showing off stuff and inviting people I have never heard of precisely to show them what a big deal you are and then sacrifice all your personal time for distant in-laws and additional big-deals you might care little about and raising two children, all the while working full time. How is that fun, please?

7.      Now, okay, don’t get me wrong please, I have seen happy couples. Not many, pretty few, but I have seen them. What perhaps holds them together is that they are really into each other and this combination works synergistically to add strong value to their lives. I am not sure if this can be reached intentionally. I am not counting out the possibility that it might, I am open to that. But even if that is the case, marriage as exists in Bangladesh as a general concept in 2014 seems tedious (yeah, to me anyway). Then again, once you have a ‘why’ you can endure any ‘how’, so it would be improper to pass judgment without that critical ingredient (the ‘really into each other’ thingy). Let’s just say for now that that critical ingredient is missing in my life, and I am not going to actively search for it as I consider that the wrong way of going about it.

8.      I kind of love my current life. I like solitude. I like focus. I dislike overambition and institutionalizing (the craze with MBAs and all those value-adding diplomas and extra-curriculars, yak!) and constant intervention to make oneself better. My job provides me just enough challenge and also doubles as a learning environment where it can be self directed. I have a nice, tolerant family who think a great deal of me. I have lots of work colleagues and friends who think well of me, and work is pretty fulfilling. I get to chase my passions: reading, travelling, experiencing, reflecting, flaneuring. I do sometimes feel a little collective guilt, but that’s little enough that it doesn’t register. Come on, my country already has a massive population of 160 million, it’s not really required that I add to it. And I am of social use. I contribute strongly to my family, and not only to my immediate family, but to my extended one too. I would rate my life pretty high right now, and perhaps I am a bit deluded, but then this is pretty sweet. : )

9.      People would suggest thinking about the future. Who would take care of when I am old? Plus think of all the exciting experiences I am missing out. Sex, for one! Sharing with someone the best things in life which can exponentially increase the value of experience. And there is the sheer economics of it: more economic power. Easier migration. Another set of inputs into each variable. True, I am missing out on certain things. But then I am missing out on interplanetary travel too, which is something I would really, really love to do. I am not very ambitious, somehow. I like the small pleasures in my life, and I am prepared to accept some of the trade-offs (such as my scions taking care of me when I am old, but then does that really happen like that now-a-days?). And there is a huge downside to all that upside too (a 50%+ divorce rate in industrialized societies, which correlate with our middle class?); not that there isn’t a downside to my general state too, but this other condition doesn’t propose a very significant improvement, and given my natural inclinations, might actually result in some degradation. Why take the chance unless that ‘critical into you ingredient’ make me go crazy with ‘passionate love’ and then allow me to settle down with ‘companionate love’? : )

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Flaneuring and Ambition

1.      Writing is a difficult undertaking. You want to let a lot of things out. But then you very quickly realize that this is a limited instrument, and you can only digress and express so much. So one must necessarily restrict oneself. This very specific writing project is a bit scary: I am proposing to make a connection between flaneuring and ambition. This makes sense to me on a gut level, but gut level ideas are not easy to express in writing. Consider this a first draft, a first foray, an explorative stream of consciousness and set your expectations accordingly, dear reader. :)

2.      Flaneuring is a term coined by Honore de Balzac, the famous French novelist. It has many variations of meanings, but the way I understand it is random wandering, specifically random walking in the streets of Dhaka. Again, nothing is truly random, and with enough observation you can start to figure out patterns. There are very specific geographic constraints to my walking as well. But this pattern recognition is a post-fact, it is not a conscious understanding as I flaneur. I do it for joy, but as I do it, I see more layers of meaning and more connection to the broader context of my life.

3.      Ambition is a broad term, so there is a need to define it in the context of this essay (interestingly, essay broadly means to attempt as first used by Michel de Montaigne J). By ambition I mean the desire to live in great and rich places. The middle class here in Bangladesh are wont to cultivating the ambition in their scions to live their third world homeland for first world countries, and many families will do anything in their power to empower their children to achieve this. In my middle class context, this is mostly done through the device of pursuing higher education, and then continuing to pursue such education until employment materializes and you have got a permanent residence or some such staying mechanism.

4.      Okay, so how does one connect these two very disparate concepts? What logical relationship might flaneuring have with ambition? My answer is realization and deep exploration. I know, that sounds Greek to you, so allow me to explain.

5.      Realization is wisdom. Wisdom came to me after spending thirty-one summers in this Earth. Okay, that was too dramatic - of course, it didn’t all come to me one fine day, it came gradually. And wisdom doesn’t come in one thing, but many. But the wisdom I refer to here is on being happy. There is a huge scope for deconstructing the term happiness here, but I will need to be short and succinct: I mean here the very specific realization that you can be happy anywhere. This sounds like a deceptively easy concept to grasp, but the evidence around me suggests that society trains us to not grasp this concept so easily. And I do not understand why society does this, with the continuous insistence on achieving and accumulating and big time participation on the rat race. Or perhaps society is not to blame, it is the selves within us, the many competitive selves, the society of minds as Marvin Minsky puts it, which is to blame. Perhaps it is the nature of the high-IQ beast. I would rather opt for the internal locus of control here than going on blaming society for all the malaise and existential angst. :)

6.      So did I confuse you, or did you get it? The realization is one of happiness in the present time and place. I had this notion for a very long time, but it started to crystallize when I started seeing people around me getting frustrated at not being able to go to a first world country. Their conditions were by no means uncomfortable, but the fantasy of going and living in heaven on earth drove them on, and I felt at a certain point that this is damaging, and the Philosopher will not be okay with this. Yes, I consider the best person to be a Philosopher, and please do not ask me to explain that, neither the Best Person not the Philosopher. :) I am not saying I am scientifically and logically correct here, this is a gut discourse, folks. And so I felt that the greatest success one can have is to be happy with what she has right now. Perhaps this is an escapist thing. I mean, c’mon, if we all had an open option, who among us would choose to stay in a third world country?

7.      Next up is deep exploration. This is very nicely explained in Daniel Gilbert’s book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, but you have in all probability not read that book. Gilbert explains that when we do not have options, we immediately start to rationalize. And we do so incredibly cleverly, so cleverly that our conscious minds aren’t even aware of this trick. Dan Ariely also explains it in his book Predictably Irrational when he shows how paraplegics (those who lost limbs) and lottery winners have the same level of happiness after a year! Other psychologists call it the Hedonic Treadmill. People rationalize extremely well. And deep realization tells you that you can do it, and you can do it very effectively when you start to unwrap the layers of meanings from things! That is what I mean by deep exploration. I started to deep explore my options here in Dhaka. I kind of felt that I was stuck with these and now let’s try to squeeze more meaning out of it, figure out the layers of meanings, and it started to reward me unexpectedly generously! I guess all of us have experienced it sometime in life. In grade nine I hated all the poems, but then I started to totally fall in love with ‘Jharna’ and ‘Shonar Tori’! Perhaps we all have preconceived notions and circumstances force us to really examine these notions, and then we start to see things we might have missed, or perhaps these are just tricks of the big unconscious. Or perhaps both. :)

8.      Again, what does this have to do with random walking around? In this specific connection between flaneuring and ambition, it is a city - Dhaka! Dhaka, yes, has a lot to do with it. Because in my late teens and early tweens I clearly remember how I used to be frustrated by this polluted, overcrowded city. I used to feel suffocated. I felt worthless sometimes that I was not being able to get out of this city. Well, there definitely is some generalization here but these feelings did spike every once in a while. I felt smothered and suffocated by Dhaka while the city continued to come out as one of the dead lasts among all the major cities in the World.

9.      And then over time, perhaps as I started to realize that I was not going to go away anywhere (probably because that was way too much effort and not my thing, I rationalized), I started to notice the good things about Dhaka, or what I have so far called deep exploration. The traffic was bad, but read a book in the transit and you are okay. No parks to walk? Come on, walk the blocks and quiet side-alleys which have so many surprises. It is 130 square miles and 14 million surprises! And when I moved to Bashundhara, there is so much undeveloped space that 25 minutes from my workplace I am almost in the middle of totally unspoiled nature without a single person! Flanuering started to take hold, both the concept and the practise. I started to notice the changes in weather. The rationalization innate to our behavioral psychology got coupled with the appreciation of details, such as Dhaka’s fantastic weather (which is something I kind of strongly subscribe to now after visiting the States and Europe several times ;), and the mental tricks one learn from reading so many neuroscience books. And of course there then is the basic, true and unvarnished fact that happiness is indeed within your grasp if you allow it to blossom and start shifting your perspectives.

10.   Flanuering is many things in one. It is good physical exercise. It is good philosophical exercise too, and the physical reinforces the psychological. The increased blood circulation helps decision making, and the tranquility helps too; nature contextualized work worries and the transitory nature of our beings :P. Jonah Lehrer puts it as recontextualization. When you are walking, you are in a different context. When you are walking in a new place, you are in an even more different context. New contexts breed new thinking. Add to that the feeling of a place, and specifically the ‘nostalgial’, which adds to the effect, at least for me. Dhaka is where I grew up, and places have so many memories: Mirpur, Kafrul, Mohammadpur, Lalmatia, Dhanmondi, Uttara, Razabajar, Gulshan, Bashundhara. And then there is the weather. I do not know why not, but till a certain point of time in my life I simply was indifferent to weather effects, but now seem to be much more attentive to slight gradations and can couple this with other effects to achieve a very desired effect indeed, and quite often as well! Perhaps these are life skills, and perhaps you do not need to read a lot or learn a lot to achieve these, but the net effect is that I find flaneuring to be a useful and very enriching exercise. Dhaka is so much more granular to me now, the many neighborhoods have such different characters, and even the microneighborhoods (compare Bashundhara Block B to Block K and you will get what I am talking about). I actually feel privileged to be part of this ugly megalopolis! :)

Some Background

1.      This is an attempt to capture my current political thinking. This is a live first draft written in 40 odd minutes, and human cognition is fluid. That is one reason I use the word ‘current’. I take no pride in the static nature of any theory. Theories should morph with time. And my own opinion will of course be amenable to change. And because this is written in a very short time, this probably will have some generalizations and oversimplifications and what not.

2.      My objective is to put forth these ideas to some of you, and may be *probe* the reaction, if any. I am not guaranteeing at all that I will respond to any of the reactions, but I will probably read most of these. And I hope this also helps you explore this aspect of your own cognition. There is a good chance that very few or no one will read this. My axiom in writing follows Daniel Gilbert: writing needs to be its own reward, or it is not worth it, so even if no one cares, writing this helped fulfill a need in me which has given me some enjoyment. J

3.      I do not believe political ideas are very rational. Politics has too many overlapping variables to have the clear derivation process used in the natural sciences. It is probably more ‘emotional’ and ‘experiential’ than ‘rational’. Again, emotions and experiences are the building blocks of reason, so you might as well say that politics is 100% rational, and this perspective shift is what complicates any discussion on politics. To make it short, I do not think practical political discourse strongly follow linearity and hard logic, at least not in the current context of Bangladesh, and not in much of human history. We often put up certain strong rationale for ‘the others’ to be convinced by. Behavioral Sciences suggest that this approach is pretty often futile, mostly because we form judgments first based on an arcane number of variables and tend to post-justify these. Most people are not very willing to reflect on questions of hard logic in politics, because, frankly, it’s hard and politics is not an existential question. Politics can be said to be more driven by ‘liking’, background, personal history, local history and other associated gut feelings.

4.      One’s background has probably a disproportionate effect on one’s political preferences. This can be deconstructed, but would take up way too much space and time. Modern polities have millions of individual entities, and we rarely get to meet even 1/10000th of them. Yet, individual experiences also have tremendous impact on political decision-making. Me, my family and my immediately circle of friends and colleagues all have a disproportionate effect. But in the information age, these sources are fast being replaced by other influencing variables, such as blogs, Facebook superposters etc.

5.      I do not have a clear political preference. Many of the elders I know have set belief systems which extend to politics and that is the default state I knew till my teens: a person having an immutable allegiance dictated by personal experience and religious belief. However, I have been increasingly meeting people who also do not have strong political allegiances and make it more situational. That said, I am often frustrated by my tendency to play devil’s advocate in various political discourses. ;)

6.      To jump a bit, we have two broad political groupings in Bangladesh: the Left and the Right. Awami League dominates the Left, being broadly Center-Left itself. BNP dominates the right, being broadly center-right itself. These tend to be the two main forces around which the political discourse of Bangladesh currently revolves. I do not see fundamental difference between these two parties. In fact, the difference is so marginal that it is almost like replacing one set of people for another, unlike systemic changes.

7.      As an agnostic (agnostic derives from ‘a+gnosis’, which means without knowledge; people who are undecided about the supremacy of any belief system), I should have had a natural inclination toward the liberal spectrum of our political system. However, Bangladesh is pretty liberal as far as Muslim countries go, and I have never faced enough challenge to become an activist for the Left/Awami League. I was pretty indifferent to politics and have never participated in any demonstrations in my life. For whatever reason, I never made the connection between my agnosticism (which, again, I want *not* to be a deeply held belief; I simply find the dominant form of organized religions as inefficient usage of my time) and liberalism. I still am not sufficiently threatened by the Right. I somehow do not feel (and I can see scope for deconstruction here) that they will pose a threat to my pretty docile agnosticism.

8.      Over the last 2.5 years, I have started to develop some issues with liberalism as practiced by Bangladesh Awami League, or I should rather say some individuals and schools of thought which I find to be closely correlated with this party. This is not a political-structural issue; if I were to be asked, I would call it an attitudinal issue, and my personal experiences did play a part in it (which again is open to further reflection but which I do not want to do at this point J). This is how I explain it when asked to explain in one line: “I was used to religious bullshitting, but I am taken aback by liberal bullshitting most recently! It seems worse!!” I sometimes ‘feel’ that aspects of Awami Liberalism (and please, I do not mean it derisively here) has almost become a de facto religion for a small segment of the population. I hasten to add here that it is all fine by me, that’s any individual’s right. But my interactions with elements of this group have not been particularly pleasant. I have some misgivings for this group, and I project this heuristic along with some other reinforcements to nullify any natural inclination an agnostic might have felt for the Bangladeshi Left.

9.      That said, I also used to have (and believe still have) a cold shoulder for the Very Religious Right. This used to be strongest in my teens when I was starting to bow out of religious rituals. With a good deal of surprise I have noted over time the mellowing down of this ‘reservation’. The Far Liberal Left (quite a mouthful, eh? :P) had such an attitude problem that I figured why not stick with the older evil – the Very Religious Right? Plus, I figured I have survived the Religious Right this long, and the threat quotient was also going down anyway.

10.   This still doesn’t mean I feel predisposed toward BNP/Jamaat. What this does mean is that I do react to some (Far) Liberal Left ‘provocations’ sometimes as a proxy. I still do not feel I care about politics enough to come out for any one side very strongly, although I do see how my more recent posts can be read to make a case for predisposition towards the Right. I care a little bit about how others perceive my political stance, and hence this post, but then again, my final analysis would be why care this much? J

11.   So folks, this kind of sets the background, and if I ever have the inclination I might put forth my ideas and analysis of how to feel good about the current bind. J Don’t take this too seriously, again. Have a good evening! J