A framework that helps you decide when to keep and it and when to give up

Aphorisms and proverbs sometimes pack powerful wisdom.  We are fond of quoting them and using them to guide our behavior or to explain it. But have you noticed how many of them contradict each other? We should “Look before we leap” but, unfortunately, “He who hesitates is lost.”

We are all on Death Row. Don’t bother about dying – think about whether you are living.

For many years I was in thrall to ‘some day.’ My wife and I are both tennis fanatics and regularly tune in to the Grand Slams and most of the Masters. We knew we would go to the French Open ‘some day.’ And Wimbledon. And the Australian Open. Last year a friend asked me when ‘some day’ would come. I reflected and then bought tickets to the Men’s and Women’s semifinals and finals. I told my wife and she was able to re-arrange her schedule. We went and had a grand time. There is something we forget – we are all on an inexorable journey that will end with the obliteration of our individual ego. The change is all around us but we try to ignore it. I vividly remember bringing my daughter home from the hospital. Her foot was half the size of my palm. Now she is married and co-founder of a tech start-up in San Francisco. I taught my son chess and he was amazed at how the pieces coordinated to produce winning combinations. Now he beats me routinely and is about to graduate from Columbia Law School. I walk up flights of stairs that I would once run up.

I was looking for a really good example for a lesson I wanted to share with you. Today, I found it. You will be well served in the New Year – now nearly three weeks old! – if you pay heed. And I found this example, by happenstance, when I was not looking. In fact, I was goofing off and watching a movie. Let me give you some background. Saroo grew up dirt poor in India. He was very close to his elder brother Guddu who would watch out for him and play with him and promised to get him lots of jelabis – an Indian sweet that they were too poor to afford. He was also close to his mother who would hug him and cuddle him and feed him and care for him. When he was five years old Saroo went to sleep in a stationary train that started up and transported him to Kolkata, more than a thousand miles from home. Destitute and starving, unable to speak Bengali, the local language, he lands up in an orphanage and is adopted by affluent Australian couple. He is brought up in Tasmania. Flashes of his childhood keep recurring and, with the encouragement of friends, he estimates how long he was on the train and maps out places that could have been his home. He then spends months visiting these via Google Earth. Finally he strikes paydirt and hops over to India to meet his birth family. There is a tearful reunion with his mother. And then he asks, “Where’s Guddu?” Turns out that Guddu had been struck by a train and died the same night he was lost. He dissolves into tears and the heartache is palpable. For the curious, the movie is Lion and it is still playing in theaters. Doubtless it will appear soon on Netflix and other streaming services. The lesson?

In his time he may have been the most powerful man in the world

He came in fashionably late and occupied his cushioned seat atop the intricately carved marble structure upon which his throne rested. It was a hot tropical morning but his heavy robes actually kept him cool and shielded from the searing wind. His diadem laden crown felt heavy and he refrained from turning his head for fear that it would fall. He looked at the pulsing, seething crowd below and, instantly, they fell to their knees in homage. A far larger crowd had gathered outside the mammoth, red sandstone, walls of his palace. There was anger in the air but it was rapidly changing to fear. He was about to help that transformation accelerate. Today was not an ordinary court day. Today he would let his subjects know what happened when they forgot that he, and he alone, was their divinely appointed ruler. He leaned forward slightly to look directly below him. A dozen naked men were there, each held in chains by two burly guards. They were in sorry shape. Many had broken limbs with white bones showing through torn skin. Flesh, charred with branding irons, was suppurating. One was comatose and only the chains kept him upright.  They had all confessed. Under enhanced interrogation from his most skilled intelligence officers they had given up comrades and exposed the conspiracy. Even now his horsemen were pursuing the one surviving leader. He would soon be captured. Now it was time to teach his subjects a lesson they would never forget.

I have fielded many calls in the recent past from persons in the grip of strong emotions, primarily anger and fear. Do you become angry and afraid? Have you ever wondered why? Steve had a rough day at work. His boss asked him to do a report all over again even though he had scrupulously adhered to the guidelines he had been given. The boss had changed his mind about what he needed. Instead of acknowledging this and apologizing he blamed Steve for not giving him what he now wanted. The HR clerk called to let him know that his expenses would not be reimbursed. True, he had stayed at a more expensive hotel than permitted but had assumed that he could cover the extra charges with personal funds. Not so. The clerk said there would be no reimbursement. He could probably get this reversed by going up the HR chain but it would take up time he did not have and use up relationship capital he wanted to conserve. As he entered his house he felt something under his foot and heard an ominous crack. His son’s brand new Gameboy console had just broken. He had spoken to him many, many times about the inadvisability of leaving stuff around. Something snapped. He took the stairs two at a time with flames shooting from his eyes. He was going to have a word with his son.

She called me right after the event. I could not see her but I knew her eyes were red with weeping. “I am so distraught, Professor Rao,” she cried. “My stomach is tied up in knots. I cannot think or work or eat. I feel as if Freddie Kreuger has slipped into my house.” And then there is my long time handyman, someone I have used for years who always delivers great service at reasonable price. “Why don’t they recognize that he won? This pointless obstructionism simply ensures that we will get nothing done.” His face was lined with anger and frustration. The 2016 Presidential election in the US has shaken up the country like no other in a century. Yet again a presidential candidate has won the popular vote and lost the presidency. There is hand wringing and jubilation and deathly fear and talk of the apocalypse.

I made a mistake when I was young. It took me decades to recognize that I had made the mistake. I will do what I can to make sure that you don’t make the same error. What was that mistake? I’ll tell you. But first some background.

Buddhist sages have exhorted lay followers to practice Dharma and consciously follow a spiritual path. The Indian sage Shankara spoke about the endless striving after pleasure, sex and wealth and how this led persons astray and away from the path of genuine happiness.

St. Timothy beseeched everyone to flee youthful passions, pursue righteousness and call on the Lord from a pure heart.

My mother knew about all of them and more and tried hard to get me to read works by the Great Masters and live by their words. I wasn’t having any of it. I wanted ‘success’ now. Far from fleeing youthful pleasure, I indulged to the hilt. And I continued to batter my head on brick walls until I realized a great truth.

Reading the newspaper each day is a surreal experience. Doubtless you feel you have entered The Looking Glass World. But there is a lesson here for you. A lesson that will serve you well in business and in life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a noble politician to vote for? A high-principled one who would instinctively and always do the right thing? Perhaps someone like Abraham Lincoln? Unfortunately it turns out that Honest Abe “…dissembled, waffled, told racist stories and consorted with corrupt politicians.” He also planned dirty tricks to counteract his opponent’s antics including a scheme to harvest large numbers of illegal votes. Read more about this in an article by Garry Wills in the October 5, 1992 issue of Time magazine. Fast forward to today and the New York Times reports that many Republicans are whipsawed “between two unpalatable options: alienating much of their party’s base, or standing behind a nominee who is unacceptable to most mainstream voters.” Donald Trump has set new records for mendacity and the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, is giving a celebrated imitation of a human pretzel as he tries to “explain” his position. I have some advice for all these torn politicians.

Why you keep doing stuff that harms you and you know it harms you.

He was a diligent student. He did all the exercises and assignments in my program and benefited greatly. And one day he approached me about a serious problem he had. He was an alcoholic. He had kicked the habit numerous times but, somehow, he always relapsed. “I know its bad for me,” he said. “I know it very clearly but I just can’t stop myself. Can you help me?” And I thought about the numerous persons I know who have participated in Creativity and Personal Mastery over the decades who have expressed something similar to me. I have my own thorns. I ‘know’ that salty Indian snacks are bad for me but I indulge anyway. How about you? Are there things you do that you clearly ‘know’ are not in your best interest? Like checking email compulsively? Or being driven by overweening ambition? Like ignoring your family while you climb your career ladder?

Sometimes the lesson you need to learn is right at home but you have spent a lifetime avoiding it. And you have suffered much totally unnecessary misery as a result. To give you some background, I do not like gardening. I do like beautiful gardens with colorful flowers with butterflies flitting to and fro but they do not make my heart soar. And I emphatically do not like planting and weeding and watering and fertilizing and all the stuff you have to do to create a beautiful garden. My wife, on the other hand, LOVES gardening. Which is fine by me. But what is NOT fine is the way in which she tries to rope me in to ‘help’ her in the misguided hope that I will start liking it.