Keep it Simple, Smarty

I had lunch with a colleague this week during which we talked about her near-term plans and long-term aspirations over a bowl of bi bim bap. She reflected on options ranging from graduate school to life-long ambitions, from alternative career paths to renegotiating her relationship with her childhood pastimes. At the end of the discussion, as I munched on the leftover bowls of banchan, she paused, reflected for a moment, and remarked: “You ask really good questions.”

I? Ask good questions? That’s interesting, because I wasn’t trying to ask good questions.

There was a time when I tried to ask good questions. In fact, I’ve wanted to ask good questions most of my life. As far back as elementary school, I sought to ask the interesting, non-obvious question to the teacher, less because I wanted to know the answer and more because I hoped to signal just how advanced my comprehension was. “I understand graphing real and imaginary numbers on a two-by-two, but what if you add a third dimension?” I delighted in stumping the teacher and didn’t mind taking the class completely off-track.

This inclination continued in the working world. Asking the right “high-gain question” was celebrated as a great skill. If someone was evaluating many options, I might say “It seems like there are really two approaches here: A or B. Which seems most useful?” Similarly, if someone was trying to understand a situation, I might say “In my experience, it is always a matter of X or Y. Which is at stake?” My questions were crawling with clever frameworks and embedded advice. Intentionally or incidentally, I casually showcased how brilliant I could be while simultaneously seeming helpful. While my questions presumed to help the other person find their direction, let’s be honest: they were all about me.

As I’ve started to work on my ego (only partially successful to date), I’ve tried to shift to asking questions in the service of the other instead of for my own benefit.  This has prompted me to realize two things:

The smarter you try to be, the less useful you become, and

The most powerful questions are the most simple.

Everyone has heard the perennial advice to “ask open-ended questions.”   Beyond this, I propose adding the guidance: “ask simple questions.” It’s not about providing a maze of options, a clever trade-off, or a new framing. It’s not about leading people in the direction that you see unfolding. And it’s certainly not about receiving recognition for your endlessly clever perspective.

Instead, it’s about reducing to the simplest question in service of the individual:
“What do you want?”
“What’s important about that?”
“How do you feel?”
“What’s next?”

Though I can’t always get out of my own way, I am always most useful to others when I’m not trying to be clever.  In other words, keep it simple, smarty.

So, what now?
Meredith

Twenty Four Hours of Driving Across India

This past week I spent at least two hours a day driving across Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi states.  While driving is a universal task, there are three things I find distinctive about driving in India:

From above

First and most evident:  the traffic conventions are unique.  There is speedy passing and minimal regard to lanes.  It’s not unusual to dodge an oncoming truck, even on a divided highway when you might assume they’d be on the opposite side of the barrier.  There are plenty of slow-moving objects (e.g., donkeys, tractors, horses, cows, bicycles) on the highway.  And horns punctuate the majority of driving maneuvers.

Because of these conventions, driving in India takes distinct skill.  I’ve always had a driver when I’ve come to the country (daring to drive only once in Calcutta – and then for maybe a block).  This means that I’m almost always in the passive passenger role instead of the active driver role.

And finally, there just seems to be a lot of driving.  Over the past week, I’ve spent over a day of it (yep, twenty-four hours) in the car.  Four and a half hours here.  Three hours there.  Thirty minutes that was supposed to be five minutes, but we got caught behind a gaggle of schoolkids drumming and then had a run-in with a camel.

Collectively, this makes driving in India quite different from the States.  There is simply a lot of time in a car, over which you have minimal control, and you may feel explicitly out-of-control when your driver makes the Nth harrowing dodge-and-weave move around a formidable truck.

motorcycle

tuktuk
In reaction to this difference, I’ve heard every possible reaction:  Some visitors complain “Ugh, the traffic is awful!  It took us six hours to get to Agra!”  Others comment:  “I loved all our visits, but my favorite part was just watching the world go by in the car.”

I’m no exception; my own experience of driving this week ranged from:

  • “Hurrah for driving!  What a wonderful way for me to reintegrate back into India.  I’ll watch the world go by, read the Times of India, and get my head back into being here.”
  • “Driving is the worst.  I don’t want to make small talk with anyone and think my head is going to explode.”  Note:  We stopped halfway through this drive for me to throw up.  Great times.
  • “Hurrah for driving!  I’ll sit next to my new friend and work on learning the Hindi alphabet so I can read the signs!”
  • “How lovely to have this time to discuss – to debrief, to digest, to talk about things that really matter.”
  • “Driving is the worst.  I’m so done with this.  Get the f’ out of the way of the bus.  I will personally get out and push the cow off the road if that’s what needs to happen here.”
  • “Why are we stopped? . . .  No, seriously, why are we stopped?”

traffic inside

It’s crazy:  When I hate driving, I really hate driving.  I am viscerally tied up in my frustration and annoyance.  And when I love driving, I really love driving.  I am compelled by the country, happy to chat with a friend, and completely at ease about how long everything takes.  The bad is objectively bad, and the good is objectively good.

Yet, in reality, driving in India is neither good nor bad.  It just is.  And my experience of it is simply what I decide to bring to the situation.  My reaction to the blaring horns and gridlocked cars is just the result of the experiences I’ve had, the opinions I’ve formed, and the reality I decide to buy into at any given time.

The same is true with every experience in life:  traffic, changes of plans, a promotion, death, the breakfast menu, that music blaring, the room I’m assigned at the hotel, illness.  We often buy into broad assumptions of good or bad (i.e., getting upgraded at the hotel yesterday is good, getting a migraine the other day is bad).  Ultimately, though, none of these assessments are objectively true.  (For example, my upgraded room creeped me out because it was so big and old and I slept with the lights on.  The migraine, on the other hand, made me really conscious about how I was engaging with other people and ensured I was fully present when I recovered.)

Nothing is good or bad.  It just is.

So thank you, India, for reminding me of this truth and giving me the choice of what to bring.  I prepare for yet more driving tomorrow, I’m going to let myself believe that all that car time can be a blessing.

Meredith

The Values You Eat

Between the Wedding Diet and my more recent approach to counting calories, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about food.  Part of the point of The Wedding Diet was bringing consciousness to certain foods and figuring out how I reacted to cutting each one out.  But as I’ve moved past that approach, I’ve started to think less narrowly (i.e., what happens when this one thing goes away?) and more broadly (i.e., what happens when I eat anything?).  Physically, emotionally, and otherwise, what life do I create as I ingest each bite?

A good friend told me that “food is the place where we develop and exert our integrity.”  This is not just integrity in the sense of following through on our commitments – our ability to stick to a diet or maintain our veganism over time.  Beyond that, our food choices also reflect our integrity of living in alignment with who we are and what we value.  I, for example, variously value health, convenience, appearance, social connection, cultural experience, tradition, sustainability, and frugality when I decide what to eat.  Not all of those values are reflected in this morning’s espresso or my mid-day fried rice (real-life menu choices for today), but my choices are the more-or-less successful reflection of a constellation of values I strive to honor.

I am what I eat – from the molecules that make up my food to the values which my food reflects.

And you are too.  You can imagine that we all eat from a veritable pu pu platter of values every day.

values we eat
But here’s the thing about values.  You can’t honor all of them all the time.  It’s tough to find the afternoon snack which is at the same time frugal, healthy, and communicates your sense of adventure.  So we make trade-offs.  We give up some things to accommodate others.

I know that I won’t always be the perfect reflection of my values.  But my hope is that I can keep on consciously choosing what I eat.  I’ve learned over the past months that I don’t live better by excluding sugar or including dairy.  I’ve learned that I eat best when I eat consciously – conscious of not only the basic gastronomical dimensions of what and how much, but also the why and the how.

And with that, I am finishing defrosting the ratatouille – the most tangible manifestation of my values of health, appearance, and frugality you’ll see from me all day.

What values do you aspire to eat?  What values did you eat today?

With love,
Meredith

Are You Reacting To Life or Creating Your Life?

This week someone posed the question “Are you reacting to life or creating your life?”  I liked the formulation and decided it was my key reflection point for the week.  But instead of writing about it, I’m mixing it up and putting my dubious drawing skills to the test.  Thus, please enjoy:

title

reaction

creation
With love,
Meredith

 

What I (Re)Learned From Watching My Dog Sniff Butts

Every time I take Reese to the dog park, he’s terribly excited.  There are dogs and people and more dogs and more people.  And they all smell so interesting and different.  Forget fetch or running around, smelling is hands-down his favorite activity.  Sometimes he even smells so hard that he forgets to breathe and, as a result, starts to drool.  Unfortunately, this little droolly-faced pup reminds other owners of a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth dog.  So, in short, Reese loves to smell so much that other dogs and people think he’s completely crazy.  I say with pride:  That’s our dog.

The Reese Machine, post-walk

The Reese Machine, post-walk

I have learned to expect this reaction when I take him out.  So when we arrive at the park, I do the same thing every time.  I tell him “sit” and “stay.”  Then I take off his leash and walk a step away.  I remind him once more to “stay,” at which point he looks at me with a face full of agony and restraint.  Then I tell him “okay, go!” which means he can run around, diving into the smorgasbord of smells.

Lately, Reese has not being waiting that patient, disciplined second before I tell him to go.  Remove the leash and he’s headed straight for the nearest dog’s rear.

While frustrating, this morning’s sprint for the smells prompted not only the appropriate discipline, but also a moment of self-reflection.  Whether you’re a dog like Reese or a human like me:

Emotions don’t equal actions.

emotions actions 1

Being mad doesn’t mean you yell.
Being sad doesn’t mean you cry.
And being overcome by smells doesn’t mean you run off.

Like Reese, I find myself using emotions as an excuse for my automatic behaviors.  We have a whole host of these which are collectively accepted in our culture as normal behavior:

  • “I’m busy with more important things. . .” (and therefore I’m allowed to be less present and a bit distracted around you)
  • “I’m tired. . .” (and therefore I’m allowed to be crabby)
  • “I’m annoyed your inefficient process. . .” (and therefore I’m allowed to be demanding and impatient.) [I definitely felt this one at the Indian consulate waiting for my visa yesterday.]

These are just excuses for our thoughtless behavior.  We often act as if an external situation creates an internal state which dictates our actions – and that all of that is completely understandable and fair.  For example, while waiting at the Indian consulate I tell myself that it makes sense that I’m annoyed because their process is inefficient.  And before I know it, I’m speaking in an overly sharp tone and with an annoyed attitude to the woman behind the counter.  But with good reason, right?

 

However ‘logical’ my emotions and actions are in a situation, I always have choice in the emotion I show and how I act.  Especially when I have fantastic rationale of why I can justifiably be an a-hole in a situation, it’s even more important that I have to remember that little moment of choice.

 

emotions actions 2

 

I’m reminded of one my roommates in business school.  After a strong night out, most of us would show up to class looking like hell and not very pleasant to be around.  He, on the other hand, would look interview-ready in business formal.  For most of us, there was an obvious, necessary causality between our hangover, our haggard appearance, and our rough-around-the-edges personality.  But he would get up, give himself a close shave, and dress in a proper suit.  We all may have felt the same way, but he chose to do something completely different with the same feeling.  And he didn’t buy into the easy, collective belief that a hangover gives you an excuse.

 

Emotions don’t equal actions.

 

This realization isn’t new.  I’ve practiced non-reactivity in meditation classes.  I’ve read countless books on mindfulness.  I even train concepts ideas related to presence in my day job.  But for every hackneyed insight and inspirational quote I spend a minute reading, there is a multi-month, multi-year, probably life-long process of internalizing, personalizing, and embodying that realization.  The process is neither linear nor unidirectional.  I try and try again, I fail and fail again, I realize and realize again.  My challenge isn’t understanding it intellectually; my challenge is living it.

 

And so this morning’s walk in the dog park brought me a bit closer to remembering that my emotions don’t control me.  Both Reese and I can choose how we act, even when there’s a really good rationale for acting in a certain way (just look at all those dogs!).  But I’m sure we’ll both forget that – and have to learn it all over again – before the next time we return to the dog park.

Meredith

reese labradoodle