February 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
As parents we all want the best for our children. We want to get them off to the best possible start, to give them exposure to everything from ballet to baseball before they are teenagers. If there’s a chance they can be world class at something we will spare no effort to drive them across the city to get them an hour with the best coach or teacher. It is a labour of love and we don’t think twice about it. It is instinctive.
This means packed schedules for the children that include extra classes around a hobby or a sport after school hours. Throw in time with the family, a little television, a night walk or a family game and you have a very busy day. Given that a day has 24 hours, not negotiable, chances are your child is ending up sleeping less.
New research coming in suggests that there is a strong positive correlation with sleep and a child’s performance. The more sleep they get, the better their brains develop, the higher their scores in the SAT. I’m reproducing extracts of two experiments below that make this point.
Dr. Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University is one of the dozen or so bigwigs in the field, frequently collaborating on papers with the sleep scholars at Brown University. A couple years ago, Sadeh sent 77 fourth-graders and sixth-graders home with randomly-drawn instructions to either go to bed earlier or stay up later, for three nights. Each child was given an actigraph—a wristwatch-like device that’s equivalent to a seismograph for sleep activity—which allows the researchers to see how much sleep a child is really getting when she’s in bed. Using the actigraphy, Sadeh’s team learned that the first group managed to get 30 minutes more of true sleep per night. The latter got 31 minutes less of true sleep.
After the third night’s sleep, a researcher went to the school in the morning to give the children a test of neurobiological functioning. The test, a computerized version of parts of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, is highly predictive of current achievement test scores and how teachers rate a child’s ability to maintain attention in class.
Sadeh knew that his experiment was a big risk. “The last situation I wanted to be in was reporting to my grantors, ‘Well, I deprived the subjects of only an hour, and there was no measurable effect at all, sorry—but can I have some more money for my other experiments?’ ”
Sadeh needn’t have worried. The effect was indeed measurable—and sizeable. The performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader. Which is another way of saying that a slightly-sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explained.
“Sadeh’s work is an outstanding contribution,” says Penn State’s Dr. Douglas Teti, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies. His opinion is echoed by Brown’s Dr. Mary Carskadon, a specialist on the biological systems that regulate sleep. “Sadeh’s research is an important reminder of how fragile children are.”
Sadeh’s findings are consistent with a number of other researchers’ work—all of which points to the large academic consequences of small sleep differences. Dr. Monique LeBourgeois, also at Brown, studies how sleep affects prekindergartners. Virtually all young children are allowed to stay up later on weekends. They don’t get less sleep, and they’re not sleep deprived—they merely shift their sleep to later at night on Fridays and Saturdays. Yet she’s discovered that the sleep shift factor alone is correlated with performance on a standardized IQ test. Every hour of weekend shift costs a child seven points on the test. Dr. Paul Suratt at the University of Virginia studied the impact of sleep problems on vocabulary test scores taken by elementary school students. He also found a seven-point reduction in scores. Seven points, Suratt notes, is significant: “Sleep disorders can impair children’s IQ as much as lead exposure.”
If these findings are accurate, then it should add up over the long term: we should expect to see a correlation between sleep and school grades. Every study done shows this connection—from a study of second- and third-graders in Chappaqua, New York, up to a study of eighth-graders in Chicago.
These correlations really spike in high school, because that’s when there’s a steep drop-off in kids’ sleep. University of Minnesota’s Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom surveyed over 7,000 high schoolers in Minnesota about their sleep habits and grades. Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged fifteen more minutes than the C’s, and so on. Wahlstrom’s data was an almost perfect replication of results from an earlier study of over 3,000 Rhode Island high schoolers by Brown’s Carskadon. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. Every fifteen minutes counts.
With further developments in functional MRI, brain scans can now detail brain development from day to day. These scans are now being used to understand the impact of less sleep on the brain’s development.
With the benefit of functional MRI scans, researchers are now starting to understand exactly how sleep loss impairs a child’s brain. Tired children can’t remember what they just learned, for instance, because neurons lose their plasticity, becoming incapable of forming the new synaptic connections necessary to encode a memory.
A different mechanism causes children to be inattentive in class. Sleep loss debilitates the body’s ability to extract glucose from the bloodstream. Without this stream of basic energy, one part of the brain suffers more than the rest—the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what’s called “Executive Function.” Among these executive functions are the orchestration of thoughts to fulfill a goal, prediction of outcomes, and perceiving consequences of actions. So tired people have difficulty with impulse control, and their abstract goals like studying take a back seat to more entertaining diversions. A tired brain perseverates—it gets stuck on a wrong answer and can’t come up with a more creative solution, repeatedly returning to the same answer it already knows is erroneous.
Both those mechanisms weaken a child’s capacity to learn during the day. But the most exciting science concerns what the brain is up to, when a child is asleep at night. UC Berkeley’s Dr. Matthew Walker explains that during sleep, the brain shifts what it learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Each stage of sleep plays its own unique role in capturing memories. For example, studying a foreign language requires learning vocabulary, auditory memory of new sounds, and motor skills to correctly enunciate the new word. The vocabulary is synthesized by the hippocampus early in the night during “slow-wave sleep,” a deep slumber without dreams. The motor skills of enunciation are processed during stage 2 non-REM sleep, and the auditory memories are encoded across all stages. Memories that are emotionally laden get processed during REM sleep. The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night.
To reconsolidate these memories, certain genes appear to upregulate during sleep—they literally turn on, or get activated. One of these genes is essential for synaptic plasticity, the strengthening of neural connections. The brain does synthesize some memories during the day, but they’re enhanced and concretized during the night—new inferences and associations are drawn, leading to insights the next day.
Kids’ sleep is qualitatively different than grownups’ sleep because children spend more than 40% of their asleep time in the slow-wave stage (which is ten times the proportion that older adults spend). This is why a good night’s sleep is so important for long-term learning of vocabulary words, times tables, historical dates, and all other factual minutiae.
Perhaps most fascinating, the emotional context of a memory affects where it gets processed. Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.
In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”
“We have an incendiary situation today,” Walker remarked, “where the intensity of learning that kids are going through is so much greater, yet the amount of sleep they get to process that learning is so much less. If these linear trends continue, the rubber band will soon snap.”
The next time you think of letting the kids stay up late on a weekend think of the 7 points your little one is losing as a result of your decision. Ensuring your children get more than enough sleep is one of the biggest gifts you can give them as a parent.
May 15, 2016 § 3 Comments
It’s the 15th of May, 2016 and it is my 37th birthday… But this one is a birthday like no other – it is my first birthday without my father.
When you sit down and do an honest inventory of the relationships that matter in your life, you will find that you have a very few that run really deep. On the top of that list you will probably find your parents, spouse, children, siblings, a few friends and in some cases a pet as well.
For the longest time in my life I was content nurturing these relationships using the few weeks of leave that I got annually. I reckoned that it was a stretch to actually take all my leave every year while most people didn’t use their leave at all. I took great pride in visiting my parents every year and giving them my undivided attention for the time that I visited them. I hoped that this quality time that I spent with them would help recharge my batteries and help me go back to the workplace refreshed and rejuvenated.
These trips were always action packed. Mom spared no effort to cook all the dishes I liked. The lawn would be filled up with colorful balls for the children to play with. There would be an evening that everyone dressed up for the photographers visit. We would play Scrabble, take night walks, play cards, and listen to the music that we would go to sleep with as children. There was so much to pack in that there never seemed to be enough time to get everything done. Every holiday ended with items that hadn’t been stuck off the list that we decided would get done in the next holiday. While we would do a lot of stuff, I never had the opportunity to sit down and have a deep or meaningful conversation with the two people that mattered the most to me. Somehow the pressure to spend quality time resulted in just the opposite result.
My mother had always moderated my relationship with my father. Despite my best efforts, there had always been a distance between us. It didn’t help that he travelled a lot, did a lot of entertaining and worked weekends. By the time I left for boarding school at age of 14 my entire childhood had passed by without him witnessing any of the high points of my childhood. It was about the time that I finished my class 12 examinations that we first began a relationship of any substance. I was at the crossroads of my life and for the first time he volunteered some advice. He suggested that I pursue a 3-year degree in Economics or Commerce rather than do a course in Engineering given that I ultimately wanted to follow in his footsteps. It seemed like a very grounded piece of advice and I willingly complied. Our next journey together was to attend the XIMB interview. It was a fascinating trip simply because he opened up to me in a way I didn’t even think he was capable of being.
He narrated tales of his escapades in college; of the time he had betted away his hostel fees at the races and had to sleep on Park Street for a couple of days. He talked of a plan he had hatched with his hostel mates to rob the new market, his experiments with the Ouija board. He talked about the girlfriends he had before he met mom. I sat in rapt attention that entire flight taking in all his stories. I hadn’t expected this trip to be about our relationship getting real. The euphoria of that conversation spilt over into my interview and I was on my way to get a management degree, provided of course that finished my Part II examinations in Calcutta successfully.
For all the big occasions in my life mom my mom has shown up. No excuses, no reasons. She just showed up every single time. These exams were no different. My mom’s brand of love is presence, time, deep listening and being. It’s a powerful cocktail. It always energized me and brought the best out in me. It’s something that we all learn early on, and never stop craving till we breathe our last breath – that look of approval from a parent. I got home after taking my first paper to find my mother’s eyes looking unusually bloodshot. Something wasn’t quite right. It turned out that dad had felt uneasy, been taken to the hospital and suffered a mild heart attack. He needed to undergo an angioplasty the next day. Mom got on a flight that evening and headed home leaving me in Calcutta to take on a public examination for the first time without her comforting presence.
It must have been a difficult journey for her to make, to sit in that flight not knowing what lay in waiting for her in Bangalore. Fortunately for us, the angioplasty gave dad a new lease of life and we all settled into our little niches. I went about working hard in XIMB to ensure that I got myself a decent job at the end of the program. Karen toiled her way to a gold medal in Stella Maris and a handsome scholarship to do a PhD in Purdue University. Dad continued his meteoric rise up the corporate ladder and became the first Indian MD of Madura Coats. Mom was content to raise all of us up to what she believed was our fullest potential.
Before I knew it, a decade had passed. I had immersed myself in the pursuit of corporate glory keen to emulate my father and was hurtling down that path at breakneck speed when news of dad’s deteriorating cardiovascular health surfaced again. This time he would need a quadruple coronary artery bypass graft surgery. I dropped what I was doing at work and despite my mother’s protestations arrived to be present while the surgery happened.
Sitting outside an operation theatre is one of the hardest experiences to live through. In any surgery there’s a risk involved. For the first time in my life I signed a bond for someone’s life – my father’s. A powerful realization dawned on me in that moment; my father wasn’t going to be around forever. As they wheeled him into the operation theatre he was crying tears of regret, for all the choices that he had made to get him to this point. My tears of regret were for all the things that I wish I had said to him that I would now never have the time to say should the surgery go awry.
One he was into the operation theatre my mom and I kept vigil outside. We endured an awkward silence for the longest time wrestling with our fears in the silence of our minds. There’s so much to be said but you can’t find the words. After an eerily long surgery, the doors opened and the surgeon emerged to address us. The blocks were worse than they had expected, as a result they performed 4 grafts instead of 2. The surgeon’s skills and dad’s constitution helped him emerge from that surgery stronger and healthier.
When I returned to work after dad’s surgery I found my portfolio had changed. I had been moved from Sales to Customer Marketing. Very quickly, I found myself challenged to work around an area of weakness and began to unravel quite rapidly. My health took a beating as well. My cholesterol levels started to soar, and had issues with my digestion. After a battery of tests I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. When I got stressed out, my gut pushed half digested food through my system!
At some point in life we all stop measuring time from the beginning and start measuring it from the end – how much is left. No matter how good you look, no matter how good you’ve gotten your family to look, and no matter how much wealth, fame or power you have amassed, you will experience a profound lack of fulfillment – the incompleteness, emptiness and pain expressed by the commonly occurring question: Is This All There Is?
This surreal moment occurred for me on the 10th of June 2010. I was on a night flight back from Delhi after a QGP discussion with the branch. My flight touched down an hour late thanks to the routine air traffic congestion in Mumbai airport. The JAL car and driver were at the airport to meet me. About 5 minutes into my ride home my stomach started to gripe and 2 minutes later I had to go to the bathroom. The ride to my house in Dosti Flamingo took us past the sprawling slum of Dharavi. I motioned to the driver to stop, yanked a bottled of water out, rushed across the road and scarcely avoided messing myself up. As I sat there in the darkness of bushes, I looked up into the sky and asked the questions. Is This All There Is?
At this point it became abundantly clear to me that the path, which I was headed down, wasn’t sustainable. I needed to make some big choices. Having invested a decade of the best years of my life in Unilever I was keen to explore different roles within the organization. A switch from Sales and Marketing to Talent had never been done in the history of the organization and when I had been assured that wouldn’t be possible I began to think beyond HUL. Once Ray and I had spoken about designing our lives around out children we then needed to break the news to our parents. While mom was in resistance, dad pulled me over to the side and told me to take the plunge. He said reassuringly, “I’m a few months from retirement, if your venture fails we can perhaps do something together”. His words of assurance provided the safety net for the biggest leap of faith that I was going to take in my adult life. If he didn’t have my back I might never have taken the leap.
That conversation set in motion a series of events that resulted in us moving from Mumbai to Bangalore in October of 2011. Dad retired at the end of the year and Ethan was born on the 27th of January 2012. With his retirement, his safety net that his office provided vanished and for the first time I experienced him as being vulnerable. There were many things that he took for granted after 40 years in the lap of corporate luxury and he was now lost when it came to doing the most simple things. I taught him to use an iPad, set up a Skype account for him, began to file his tax returns, book his tickets, paid his bills. In doing all these small things I felt great joy. In my heart I felt this deep gratitude for all the things that he had done for us as a family and wanted very much to ease him into retirement. With every act of giving back to him, I felt like I was making small but steady progress to balance out an equation that for the longest time had him giving and me taking.
In Ethan he discovered fatherhood through the eyes of a grandfather. All the things he now wished he had done with me with in my childhood he did with Ethan, Aidan and Dylan. From being the demon that the giant robot would destroy, to sword fencing with palm leaves his ability to bring himself down to the mental level of a 2 year old never ceased to amaze me. When Karen’s boys were down he created new games, flew kites, blew balloons and called out numbers for a family Bingo session. With his 5 grandsons he transformed into this giant teddy bear who each of them had wrapped around their little fingers. He introduced the boys to cricket and would get dressed every evening for a little game on the road outside the house. He even organized tickets to take the entire family for an IPL game. There was a seemingly endless list of experiences that he had planned to afford his grandchildren as they grew up.
When I wasn’t on the road delivering programs I found myself spending a significant amount of time with him. I would drop Ethan off and linger on for a while, discuss a cricket match, the Oscar Pistorius verdict or Federer’s latest loss. As we began to spend more time together he began to talk about things that I wouldn’t have ever dreamed he would have.
A few weeks before dad passed, I was driving him to the airport to pick his mother up and bring her home to stay with us. He spoke about his childhood, his fears about flying, and his dreams for his grandchildren. He talked about regretting having spent so little time with us while we were growing up. He shared his concerns about his mother’s health and his fear that he would not pass before her. He had a surgery to remove a kidney stone lined up a week after his mother’s arrival. As we navigated our way through the bumpy roads of Budigere, our conversation headed down a path it had never been before – our true feelings for each other. I had asked him if he was disappointed with the choices that I had made. He said that I had been a son that most father’s could only dream of having. That he had enjoyed all the small projects that we had undertaken, the rides to the city and back. As he spoke, I found tears welling up in my eyes.
I pulled over to the side and hugged him for what seemed like eternity. Those 5 minutes were the most sacred moments in my entire life. In that embrace I let go of all the things that I wished he had been for me, and he liberated me from the guessing game I had been playing all my life; is my father proud of the choices I have made?
On the morning of the 3rd of September, dad began to slip away after a second stroke. The risk bond I signed for the mechanical thrombectomy had the number 50% written in bold font. I clasped dad’s had one last time while he was conscious, looked into his eyes and said, “I Love You”. There was nothing we had left unsaid to each other. I knew exactly how he felt about me and he knew exactly how I felt about him.
A year ago to the date we sat in Goa celebrating my 36th birthday, sipping a beer discussing what I should spend the rest of my life doing. I asked him whether I should rejoin the corporate world or continue to run my own firm. He said, “Whatever you choose, is the right one!”
November 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
Life is a strange thing. One moment you are celebrating having hit 2000 Calories by mid-day with an afternoon nap, the next moment you are jolted out of your reverie with a voice screaming, “Dad’s had a fall… come soon!”. In that precise moment at 14:01 on 30th of August 2015, life as I knew it began to change forever. At 8:05 on the 3rd of August, Dad suffered a second acute ischemic stroke and post a mechanical thrombectomy had inter cranial bleeding and slipped into a coma. At 21:15 on the 4th of August he passed…
It has taken me a while to comprehend this loss… and I’m still at a loss for words to describe a world without dad. With time and reflection, there is one realisation that has dawned on me and that’s what I would like to write about today.
Complete with the people you love and care about.
Complete means this. Say what you have to say, be what you choose to be and do what you choose to do, such that if you never have another moment with that person, you would be able to live with it… with no regrets.
My relationship with my father was far from perfect for the longest time. Through my childhood and growing years my mother doubled up as dad and mom, while dad toiled ceaselessly ascending the corporate ladder at Madura Coats. Much of my communication with him passed through mom and she served as a very effective filter, justifying all the objections I had to his constant absence in my growing years. She was the perfect advertiser and without having any real experience of dad, I whole heartedly consumed her narrative.
As I reached the end of my adolescent years, he began to spend more time with me, helping me shape my personal narrative and get clear about what I wanted to do with my life. He was there when I took my first competitive examination, smoking outside the college gates while I attempted the CAT. He travelled with me to Chennai and waited in the lobby of the hotel where the XIM Interviews were underway. He helped me craft the answers to the questions in the HLL interview form and waited in the lobby at Backbay Reclamation while I attended my final interview. When it mattered in my adult life he was there.
From about 2001 to 2011, I dedicated myself to emulating him. I had somehow convinced myself that he found great happiness in seeing me do as well as him, if not better! In all these years, we had met regularly, taken family vacations and done all the things we do. His quadruple coronary artery bypass graft surgery came at a time when for the first time in my career I wasn’t enjoying work. Aidan and Dylan were growing up in 900 square feet on the 17th floor and Ethan was on the way. It seemed like the right time to depart from the default future that we were headed for.
So Ray and I sat down and arrived at a desired future, one that would be built around a better quality of life and consequently, a lower standard of living. It also meant that we would stop priding our selves on being self reliant and reach out to both her and my parents more explicitly. In October of 2011, we moved to Bangalore. It was a big family decision and one that I had the courage to make because I knew Dad had my back. If my new venture didn’t work and my bank account ran dry, I knew Dad would buy me some breathing space. Dad was the safety net financially. Karen often called Dad ‘Nature’s Bank’. I finally understood what she meant!
The last four years have been the best years in my 36 year relationship with my father. I have spent more meaningful time with him in the last 4 years that I had in my whole life up until then. I said all the things I wanted to say… did all the things I wanted to do… and could be the son that I wanted to be for him as he moved into retirement after close to 40 years at Madura Coats. In short… I completed my relationship with him. The moments I treasure most are the one’s that I least expected. They were largely a function of the amount of time that I spent with him over the last few months. As I drove him to the airport to pick up his mother who he was bringing to Bangalore to look after, he said some of the most moving words that I ever heard from him. It was my most authentic experience of him as my father. In saying what he said, he completed a part of me which otherwise would have forever been incomplete.
I’m still struggling with words so I’m just going to share a few emails that I wrote a while back. I read them again as I trawled through dad’s inbox. I’m glad I wrote them, because they captured exactly what I felt, and that dad was able to read them before time ran out on him. One was to my dad on his retirement from Madura Coats and the other to mom and dad on what would be their last anniversary… another was close to his retirement. My intention in sharing these personal letters with you is that you be inspired to complete your relationship with the people you love. The moment between loving and having lost is fleeting and you never know when the moment arrives…
14th November 2011
In this age of instant-everything, its remarkable that you stayed with a company for so many years! I’m not sure whether it ever occurred to you, but some of the decisions you made in your time as a manager left a profound impact on me and thought this might be as good a time as any to recount them.
The first one was the decision to stay in Kochadai, where all the managers stayed. Pasumalai was the default choice, everyone had stayed there and we should have followed. Whatever the compulsions from us or mom, the decision was still yours to make. I always try and avoid the symbols that go with leadership. You taught me that it was more about being than having that mattered when it came to leadership. I learned that from your being.
The second was your choice to build a career in India. My generation of management graduates grew up obsessed with making lives in the US or Europe. Your philosophy of making it in your own country and giving back here heavily influenced some of my early career decisions.
The third and probably most telling was your decision to NOT do the top job. In the corporate world, that’s extremely rare. Im my time in HUL I have seen people go to the end of the world to get promoted a few months earlier than someone else. In the rat race to have the courage of conviction to opt out and still go all the way to retirement at a high level of commitment is a matter of tremendous character to me. In doing so you gave me the permission to follow my heart and pursue my passion.
As you head in to this new chapter of your life, I hope you enjoy some of other things that you haven’t maybe gotten as much as you would have liked to. You have been blessed with 3 grandsons already with the distinct possibility of another 2 arriving in the next 2-3 years with whom you can get innumerable massages, back rubs and harass! That’s just the tip of the iceberg…
So enjoy these last few weeks reflecting on all the great things you have achieved in your glorious career at Coats and start making a list of all the things you always wanted to do, but simply never had the time to!
I’m delighted to be here in bangalore as you hang up you shoes! I always had a little regret about missing the Madurai farewell!
Much love and I’m looking forward to the next 20 years…
30th Dec 2011
Dear Mom and Dad,
August 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
It was the 6th of July and I was staying with Ameen and Anu in Singapore running the Leading Teams for Impact program for the Centre for Creative Leadership. The program was ending on Friday and I would be home for the weekend. I rang Ray on FaceTime for the usual evening chat while the boys were having their baths. Aidan came on and gave me his top stories from the day, Ethan followed with his routine of monkey faces. Dylan wasn’t keen to speak to me. Ray tried to convince him but he declined. I asked her not to push him, suggesting that he have his space and not feel compelled to speak with me if he didn’t want to. I said goodnight to all of them and went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning, packed my bags, thanked my hosts and headed off to the training centre for the last day of the program. Sitting in the taxi I was thinking about the weekend back in Bangalore and what I might do to compensate for the week’s absence when my day dream was interrupted by a reminder that had set my phone vibrating. I took it out and began to read the details of the reminder.
“Dad and Me (Dylan) at School in 15 minutes”
I was going to miss the most important day from Dylan’s perspective in his school year. I was sad, disappointed and angry all at once. Angry with myself because I had convinced myself to give up a corporate job in order to be able to be there for all these moments and was still failing to make it happen. My actions weren’t in alignment with the choices I had told myself that I was making.
I went back to the time that I had agreed to do this piece of work. When I got the call asking if I was free I didn’t check my calendar. What was foremost in my mind was ‘four days of paid work’ and I jumped at it. When someone makes you an offer that you can clearly measure it is easy to make a decision. It isn’t quite so easy when there’s no monetary value to something. It’s easy to pass up stuff that you can’t measure!
So I challenged myself to put a real value to all the things that I had been telling myself are important to me so that I start to see them as ways to make me and my family richer. There are many things that we claim are priceless but routinely tradeoff on them precisely for that reason. It is a recurring pattern in my life. I always told myself that being present for the birth of my children was priceless, yet I almost missed Dylan’s birth thanks to being stuck in a traffic jam and wanting to be sure Ray was in labour before I left my meeting.
Growing children are remarkably resilient. They find a way to deal with everything that gets thrown at them. In their little minds they make up stories about themselves and their caregivers to help protect them from being hurt again. I let Dylan down that morning and I’m still gutted about it. At the point of realisation it was too late to do anything about it. That moment in time had passed. Dylan sat through that session with his friend’s father. He reminded me when I came home that all the other fathers had got certificates but there would be none for me since I wasn’t there.
I would give anything to have that time back, but that isn’t possible. As ridiculous as it might seem I have reclassified all these ‘priceless’ time slots to being worth 5 days of income. Being priceless is misleading and doesn’t help me make choices that are consistent with what I keep telling myself.
The next time some asks me for dates, I will know for certain that I’m not free when I have a date with Ray and the boys.
July 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’m asking this question because we are at work most of our waking hours… most of our lives.
I had the experience of being fully alive at work for about 18 months while I was a sales manager for the South. I tried in vain to recreate that experience again in my career but failed miserably. That led me to the conclusion that I had precious little to do with what we created. What happened in Chennai everyone created, not me. But having experienced that experience I can now share what I thought made it special…
Self – Expression: Everyone on the team had an experience of expressing themselves just as they were. No one was right. No one was wrong. Everyone just had the space to be themselves. It is a great human joy to be able to express yourself just as you are and to have other people experience you. The Sandy Stories, Deepali’s Barve, Aswath’s jeans and chappals, Crystal Shine and Haute Pink are all manifestations of that self-expression – the freedom to just be.
Love: I don’t mean love in the sense that we conventionally talk of it. I mean it in the sense of being present for the people around you, individually or collectively. Sandy hosting a homeless Ninja, team mates helping one another through personal crises, orchestrating surprise birthday parties, elaborate mazes and puzzles, Chris child games and elaborate farewell movies. Each of these was an expression of love which was only possible because each of us was fully present and in touch with one another.
Happiness: I’m not talking about the happiness that comes from delivering a quarter end or being the fastest growing branch or winning awards at the Bangkok conference. I’m talking about the lightness of knowing that the pressure of the moment will be lost in a week’s time but that our friendship will last much longer. It was this lightness that allowed us to take out a deck of cards and play “Judgement” while waiting for our Director to address us. The same lightness afforded us a great pre-Bangkok outing at Koh Samet even though we never won any awards at that event. Its the same lightness that we experience whenever we are all together…
I’m not even sure how all of this came together and I’m sure I can’t recreate it because I have tried numerous times and failed miserably. With time and distance I can see what we had more clearly and felt compelled to articulate it.
July 16, 2015 § 1 Comment
May 26th 2014
It’s Aidan’s first week in his new school and between Raynah and I we are keen to help him make the transition the best he can. It doesn’t help that Dylan starts a week later, with Ethan’s first day a year away. Like doting parents we are there to pick him up every day of the first week. Keen to know how he’s doing we pepper him with questions like “How was your day?” or “What did you learn?” Once these are exhausted it moves to “Have you made any new friends?” or then “Which is your favorite class?”
About a month into school we were feeling very happy with the manner in which Aidan had settled into the new school. As we lay in bed one night engaged in the usual banter with the boys after the lights had gone out I asked Aidan a question.
“So what classes did you have in school today?”
He began answering, “English, Maths, EVS…” He then fell silent. He had forgotten what other classes he had. His disappointment at not being able to answer my question quickly spiralled into an emotional meltdown and he was crying bitterly. It wasn’t the sequence of events that I had envisaged when I asked him the seemingly innocuous question. When the crying persisted, I raised my voice and told him that he had to get a hold of himself and that this wasn’t an acceptable reason to be crying so much.
When this episode repeated itself a week later, I sat down to have a coaching conversation with him. I asked him how he could make sure that he remembers what classes he has and other things that are important to him. After about an hour he arrived at a solution – he would write all the important things down. I gave him a book and from the next day he began writing.
By the end of the academic year he had gone through two books recording with great passion and detail every single class he had, every single day. Every evening whether I was in Bangalore or on FaceTime, he would bring the book out and read out his cursive notes taken with great devotion during his class day. He would have a smile on his face as he read it out rapidly. As soon as he finished, he would say good-bye and vanish. His abrupt departure after the delivery of this information would seem strange to me, particularly when I was on the road. After a chat, I would be left to the silence of my hotel room save for the humming of the air conditioning. After tossing around a few theories in my head I would dismiss it as a personality trait that he would probably grow out of.
July 13th 2015
It’s 9:50 in the morning and Raynah and I are sitting in the reception of Aidan’s school. It’s an airy brick building with a large play ground in the middle of the building complex. There are children being put through drill on the field and we take in the flurry of activity while we wait for the teacher to arrive. It is a routine meeting with his teacher to get a sense of how he is doing.
The meeting begins on a positive note with the teacher telling us about how determined and responsible he is, that he’s on top of his work and that he’s just been selected to represent his school in a quiz competition. It’s what she says next that shocks us.
She adds, “For a child that is such a high achiever, he cries at the slightest disappointment.” She goes on to add that she discovered him writing down notes in his rough book during an assessment. When she asked him what he was writing, he said he was writing down the classes he had. Without any background, the teacher was keen to understand why this was such an important activity to be completed in the middle of an assessment. She asked him “Why are you doing this now?”
“My daddy will ask me” was his reply.
When the teacher narrated this incident to me I was shattered. I struggled to hold myself together. When I finally got home I tried to replay the events of that fateful night when he had first forgotten, cried, been yelled at by me for crying, and later begun this journey of writing these notes down. I had thought I was helping him to help himself. However to him, it had become a means of winning my affirmation, making me happy even if it wasn’t something he really wanted to do. How could I have ended up putting him in this position? How could I be weighing him down?
When he came home that day from school Raynah, Aidan and I sat down to have a chat. I asked him why he was writing down his classes in the middle of an assessment. At first he refused to answer… denied the incident had happened. After some coaxing and prodding he started to cry and through his tears he said, “I was scared I would forget what classes I had, and then you will be angry with me”
That was the knock out punch. A punch that has taken some time to recover from. A punch that’s raised my awareness of how significant every little thing I say or do matters so much to my children. A punch that’s hopefully made me a better parent.
Young children are remarkably sensitive people. The smallest things make the biggest difference to them. For Mother’s Day Aidan had to write a list of the reasons he loves his mother. The list was an eye opener:
- My mother picks me up from school
- My mother irons my clothes
- My mother reads me stories
It’s the small things that make all the difference, and that’s why as a parent I have resolved to be more attentive to things I say and do with my little ones.
June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Its 6:30 in the evening. When I’m in Bangalore I’m usually giving the boys a bath after sorting out who’s going first! It’s an recurring dispute and because of my frequent travel any algorithm I generate ends up being short circuited sooner or later. This evening finds me in a hotel room in Colombo peering into the bathroom from Ray’s strategically placed iPad. She’s giving Aidan a bath while I’m in conversation with Dylan and Ethan.
I’m asking them the questions I usually ask them while I’m giving them a bath.
How was your day in school?
How are your friends?
What did you learn today?
Everything is going on plan until Dylan recalls having seen a trailer for the new Jurassic Park movie. His face lights up and he starts to give me a frame-by-frame account of the trailer.
“There is this shark in the water. It is alone. Suddenly a big water dinosaur comes from nowhere…”
At this precise moment Ethan pushes his stool forward to the basin (he’s invisible on the iPad without the additional height), elbows Dylan out of the way and starts his story.
“The T Rex came. It was running fast. It made a loud sound. Rawrrrr…”
Dylan doesn’t take to this interruption kindly and tries to bulldoze his way into the frame only to be punched away by an increasingly animated Ethan.
Raynah is the justice on site and must now defuse this no-win situation. In this instance she rules in favour of Ethan. She requests Dylan to give Ethan a turn first – “He’s smaller” she reasons. Dylan isn’t impressed and responds by bursting into tears and saying the sentence he’s been given numerous time-outs for; “I hate you Ethan”
Raynah is gold standard in parallel processing. She has gotten Aidan wiped down, dressed and assigned him his work for his silent hour while admonishing Dylan for his latest use of the banned sentence. Aidan momentarily enters the frame, tells me that he caught and bowled Dylan twice earlier in the evening; says goodbye and heads downstairs to his work station.
Dylan is still protesting while he’s in the tub being lathered with his favourite striped soap. Ethan uses this opportunity to do what he normally does when’s on Facetime with me. He asks me “What are you doing?”. I proceed to give him my stock answer – “I’m doing work! I was in a class teaching people how to be better leaders”. He starts to switch between the front and rear cameras on the iPad only to be chastised by Ray who catches his antics from the eye she has in the back of her head. He then starts to make monkey faces at me. I do the same. After my facial muscles start to ache with all the contortion I have subjected them to, I ask him about the T Rex. “What happened after that?”
He is too enthralled in this current venture to revisit that subject. Dylan in the meantime has finished his bath and is waiting for his moment in the spotlight. Ethan’s turn to have a bath has come and he reluctantly comes down from his stool and makes his way to the tub.
Dylan can finally complete his story. “…opens its mouth and eats the shark up in a single bite!”
When I’m on the road I’m always keen to create some time in the day to be present to what’s happening at home, with Ray and the boys. It isn’t always a thirty minute video chat, but that’s the target. Ray and I are constantly in conversation about what we can do to be better parents. We often are faced with situations where despite our substantial investment in parenting science and research have no answers. In those moments, we must settle for being present and create space for our sons to say what they really want to say.
Aidan and Dylan had been going for soccer classes for a few months before the Ozone family fun day children’s soccer match. On the day of the match both of them punched above their weight much to our delight. We exchanged proud glances every time they made a tackle and gave ourselves a mental congratulatory pat on the back. When the final whistle blew we ran onto the field, gave them a big hug and told them they were playing like Neymar and Messi, and that we were so proud of them.
A week later on Friday night when we were tucking them into bed early in preparation for soccer classes the next morning, both of them began to act funny. Dylan protested about there being bigger boys in the training group and Aidan said his leg was paining. We insisted they must persist and they complied. The next morning they dragged themselves out of bed and reluctantly trudged to the soccer field. In class that day Aidan volunteered to be the goal keeper and Dylan jogged up and down the field making a cautious effort to appear involved in the game while making no contact with the ball.
Something had changed but Ray and I couldn’t find put our finger on what it was. We decided that it was best to give both of them a break from the game in the month of May. We were going to be travelling for a couple of weeks. The timing was perfect. They could resume in June.
On the first weekend in June we decided to ask them if they would be interested in resuming classes. After dodging the issue for a while they said they wanted to go, but had a few conditions. I must drop them on my scooter and both Ray and I must come to pick them up at the end of the game. It didn’t make sense to us but we agreed. It’s been smooth sailing since then!
Stephen Grosz in his fascinating book ‘The Examined Life’ writes; “Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we have not been attentive to her?”
When we had lavished praise on the boys after their soccer game, they had seen their classes as means to get our approval, our praise. With the box ticked, they weren’t keen to labour on any further. Their condition for resuming was really a shout for us to be present.
Grosz adds “Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?”
Ray and I plan to get Aidan started on a musical instrument shortly. In the past we would have considered our job done when we found a music teacher and paid for the classes. We now know what our children really want from Ray and me – our presence.
January 15, 2015 § 4 Comments
It’s 10:38 on Tuesday morning. I’m sitting in my home office participating in a WebEx enabled meeting. I hear the doorbell ring even though the door isn’t locked. That can mean only one thing – Ray and Ethan are back. Ray opens the door and is momentarily distracted by the gardener. He wants to know what to plant for the next season. Ethan is quick to pounce on this opportunity to sprint up the staircase, and dash straight into my room. Once he has my attention despite all my dramatic gesticulations and dumb charades, he asks me the question that I once dreaded – “Will you play with me?”
It’s a question that Aidan never got to ask of me. For most of his pre-school years, Ray was his playmate. I wasn’t in the equation. In his resilient little mind he figured it out. He might have decided that I was preoccupied, distracted or then plain not interested. I will never know for sure. He rarely asks me that question even today. He’s more content to show me what he’s achieved, and glow in the praise and affection that I show him in the moment immediately after he breaks the news.
Dylan was fortunate to start and stop pre-school. He began nursery in Bombay and then spent 6 months at home when we transitioned to Bangalore. The single most influential person in his life was Aidan and he was content to follow the patterns that seemed to work for the big brother. It was when Aidan was at school and Dylan at home, that he was free to experiment with behaviours and preferences of his own. I was in personal turmoil, wrestling with the demons of self-doubt and one morning ended up having a shouting match with Ray. Dylan watched us argue over him being a distraction if he came up while I was working. It didn’t cross my mind that he might be making sense of this for himself. He did change his behaviour in a very drastic and abrupt manner. He never came up to my room after that. A few weeks later when I yelled to him to come up to my room to show him something, he asked if he was disturbing me. Ouch! That hurt.
Ethan’s a Bangalore baby. He was born in the community that we currently live in and hasn’t known any of the turmoil and confusion that brought us to where we are as a family today. I worked from home for the first 18 months of his life and spent more time with him in his first year than I did with Aidan and Dylan put together. As a result, his dominant view is that I am around all the time for him to access as he pleases. He will walk to my room when I’m at home and whisper (a learned behaviour!) if he sees me on the phone or with my earphone plugged in. I usually point to the clock and show him a few animated facial expressions and he runs away. The process of disturbing me is a game in itself for him.
He will be off to school later this year and the house will fall silent. As I sit at my desk, I will wait for the doorbell to ring between 10:30 and 10:45… but it will not. Ray will be home and she will let herself in. I will get my 3 hours of deep concentration every morning undisturbed. But as I reflect on this moment that is now a few months away there’s a sadness that fills my heart. I’m troubled by the realization that I wasn’t quite the father to Aidan that I was to Ethan. Ray probably has no such guilt. She’s been as dedicated, driven and focussed with all three of them, given them all the same head start!
I challenged myself to be honest and answer this question – “Do I have a favourite son?” It seemed to me to be a great question since I had brought the best of myself to Ethan. I spent a month thinking about it and concluded that if I had a favourite it had to be Aidan (the euphoria of becoming a father, the paranoia of a first time parent, ensuring he had the best etc.) or Dylan (his charming smile, his monkey faces in all his childhood pictures and his uncanny ability to negotiate). On the basis of results however, Ethan clearly had got the best deal. How could I explain this to myself?
I found a hypothesis in Zimbardo’s fascinating book ‘The Lucifer Effect’. The book focuses on factors that can create a “perfect storm” which leads good people to engage in evil actions. I wasn’t being evil to anyone, but when I reflected on my behaviour I wasn’t exactly proud of myself. I embarked on a journey that Milton might describe as making darkness visible.
I started to reflect on the context of my life and the conditions of my existence around the first 2-3 years of each of my son’s lives and see if I could find any answers.
When Aidan was born in 2007 I was RSM in Chennai branch. I had a great team, an exceptional line manager who unleashed my strengths and a hunger to justify my appointment to that assignment. My focus was narrow and that blinded me to most of what was happening outside of work. It wasn’t very different in 2009 when Dylan arrived. If anything, I was more driven and determined than I was 2 years ago. I almost missed his birth in the process! Ray and I had lived in the heart of big cities with tall demands on my time and I had very little control over how I was spending it. I justified all the decisions I made (miss Ray’s birthday to quell distributor strike in Andhra, arrive just in time for my parent’s 25th anniversary because of a VIP market visit, meet Ray’s gynecologist for the first time at Dylan’s birth etc.) by assuring myself that I was contributing to a future where I got promoted faster and earned more and provided the best for my family. I really liked that story that I kept telling myself.
In January of 2012, we welcomed Ethan and celebrated having graduated to a basketball team. My context and conditions of living had shifted quite dramatically. There was no commute, fewer deadlines and perhaps most importantly no one to measure my success against. We lived outside the city and there weren’t any reminders of the speed of the world passing by beyond the gates. In the past I had been the hero of my favourite victim story – making all these impossible choices for the greater good of my family. I was now attempting to author a story where I was responsible for their future not just materially, but emotionally as well.
What was most ironic about this realization was the fact that I had used the same theory many years ago, about the time of Aidan’s birth. As a strong believer in the power of context and the theory of broken windows, I would routinely return expense reports to my direct reports with questions. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them. I just wanted to let them know I checked. If they knew I signed blindly, they might be more likely to pass a personal bill through. While I had applied this insight to great effect at work I had failed to see how it was impacting me in one of my most critical personal relationships.
When I’m with the boys I listen very carefully, particularly to Aidan and Dylan. My darkness is now visible and I want to keep from walking in the shadows again. For as my children grow, the day when they ask me this question for the last time isn’t very far away.
“Will you play with me?”