May 23, 2010
May 3 was an epic day. On the more modestly epic end of things, the day began with Teach For India welcoming the newest batch of 150 Fellows into teacher training Institute, and into this movement to end educational inequity – in fact a major landmark event. However, the real blockbuster would come later in the day.
Lest the newbies reserved doubts that the Fellowship would be tough, at 9:00am they were thrust into an experience our CEO introduced as, "for some of you, outside your comfort zone; for the rest, way outside your comfort zone."
Our project: visit a Pune slum, and spend three hours developing real bonds with individual children. The rules: spend no less than one hour interacting with a given child; do not acknowledge the presence of other Teach For India Fellows and staff; and do not buy anyone anything. The staff, of which I am a part, tagged along, ostensibly experienced in the matter at hand.
If this exercise sounds easy, my hat's off to you. I can remember how I felt the first time I was asked to visit a slum – I was queasy. (My imagination evoked that familiar state of discomfort – maybe walking home late at night, accidentally traversing an ill-reputed neighborhood – you walk purposefully and look ahead, trying to cover ground without looking rushed or nervous.) However, as I learned that day, slums can be darn friendly places, so as we set off on the bus, I was feeling good.
I spent the first hour at the home of Tararem, a 10 th standard boy with fluent English, who aspired, reasonably it seemed, to be an engineer. I learned that his hobbies include Rajasthani classical women's dance (he showed me photos of himself performing for his classmates; brave kid), and that he was married at age five to an infant girl. (I thought he was mis-speaking until he showed me photos of this also. He hasn't seen her since the wedding, but they'll reunite when she turns eighteen, in five years.) I met the charming sister and parents, learned some Marathi, and we posed for photos. My spirits were high as I carried on. However, my good feeling soon turned to great when I made an unexpected discovery: Michael Jackson still lives – he has been reincarnated as an 11-year old Indian boy.
I was standing in a circle with five or six boys, attempting to communicate with one of them about his Bollywood aspirations. (His hair was meticulously slicked back – he looked the part.) Naturally, the conversation turned to dancing, and the will of the crowd compelled me to bust a move.
Before I had even a moment to experience that form self-consciousness reserved only for dancing white men, there was an eruption of motion – I had unknowingly made the universal signal for "silent dance party".
When this would-be-MJ commenced with some leg kicks and spins, I saw resemblance; by the time he broke out the emphatic crotch grab and moonwalk, it was unmistakable. His friends tried various imitations, some impressive, but none quite so fluid and precise. In that moment I acknowledged the possibility that Michael Jackson may actually be the most beloved human to ever live.
Not much can put a person at ease more than a troupe of frolicking boys doing the moonwalk. I was feeling more than a little smug as I joined my Teach For India counterparts at the bus – "did any of you meet Michael Jackson?"
Photo 1: Mini-MJ, center-left. Photo 2: Tararem, right, and sister Laxmi.
May 9, 2010
Humor my ego for a moment as I assert that my risk-taking muscle has lately become pretty buff. Now, I haven't exactly scaled El Capitan, but in the past few months I have made steady strides against my personal benchmark: I went skydiving and did the highest bungee jump in the world, and I quit my cushy consulting job and moved to India to work for a start-up non-profit. (I'll leave the rest out, since my mom reads this page.)
Mind you, the risk-taking muscle is not all brawn – it's brains too. In its most evolved form, it becomes completely effective at an ostensibly simple task: accurately assessing risk, and making decisions accordingly.
Yet this is not so simple in practice.
What happens in the moments before you address an audience of 100 people? When you spot a pretty girl or handsome fellow at a cocktail party whom you'd really like to get to know better? When you go to speak a foreign language, in which you're shaky, to a native?
We're all human, and in these situations, our heart rate goes up; "what if" and FAILURE scenarios start flashing like breaking news on our TV sets. What these scenarios have in common is that they are all extremely low risk yet they arouse irrational fear in pretty much everyone.
My assertion here is that we all stand to learn to assess risk more accurately and less emotionally. Moreover, I would argue that the best way to do this is not by taking big risks, but by taking tiny ones, constantly. There is one simple reason for this: learning to assess and take measured risks is all about practice.
For most of us, the opportunity to even confront a big risk is pretty rare. How often does one consider a career change? Maybe once a year, in extreme cases? How often do you get the opportunity to invest half your life savings in a start-up? How often do you get stranded on an island and make the call, "make a raft, or wait it out?" The point is, if you want to practice by taking easily identifiable risks, you might not get too much practice. Not to mention, the stakes are, by definition, really high.
By contrast, small risks abound. The problem is, they usually involve such immaterial outcomes that we ignore them, or don't notice them in the first place. Say, the risk of starting a conversation with that stranger in the elevator. Or the risk of actually responding to your CEO's email asking for feedback on company culture. Or the risk of wearing that funky outfit to Friday's dinner party?
These are, like, epically small risks, and they happen to all of us, all the time. Pay attention. And take them.