Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two) here.

In Part One I talked about how 80% of Gandhi’s autobiography is about “Very Normal Things”, including eating, getting dressed, and moving around.  Here’s what else he spends most of his autobiography talking about:

Very Normal Thing #4:  Housework
Counter to the outsourcing trends of his milieu, Gandhi spends time hand-milling his own grain, starching and ironing his own clothes, and cutting his own hair.  He learns how to repair shoes and helps figure out how to spin thread and work the handloom.  Gandhi is big on cleanliness; not only does he clean his own latrines, he volunteers to inspect other peoples’ latrines to make sure they’re up to snuff (and sweeps them out if found lacking).  And Gandhi even spends a lot of time on interior decoration:  first on making his pad swank and deserving of the status of a barrister, later on disposing of all that junk.  By the time I got to the end of his story, I was convinced that Gandhi was very handy around the house.

Very Normal Thing #5:  Getting Sick and Getting Better
Gandhi variously contracts and recovers from ringworm, dysentery, constipation, headaches, and pleurisy.  He is constantly nursing others, within his family, when the black plague hits town, and as a wartime medic (Boer War, WWI).  He learns how to become a compounding pharmacist and volunteers at the local hospital.  He also becomes a bit of a quack doctor (as he admits) when he gets into earth treatments (apparently applying a poultice of dirt under a bandage?) and hydropathy (some sort of obscure water treatment?).  At one point Gandhi even calls in an “Ice Doctor” who cures him of dysentery by packing him in ice.  Like his obsession with food, there are many tales of sickness, health, and his related philosophies.

Very Normal Thing #6:  Annoying Administrative Work
In every group he’s a part of, Gandhi volunteers for many of the annoying tasks most of us would avoid doing – and then describes them in extensive detail.  He translates correspondence from one language to another, answers other peoples’ mail, collects dues, raises money, hand-cranks the printing press, leases buildings, folds newspapers, passes around petitions, serves as secretary, scribes documents when he can’t get them copied, you get the picture.  Even Gandhi tires of administrivia though; at one point, he bribes children to help him fold pamphlets with used postage stamps.  Score.

The most interesting point, however, is that in the midst of these “Very Normal Things,” you see the greatness of the Mahatma emerging.  He approaches the most annoying administrative work with a sense of servanthood.  He strives for simplicity in his clothes, his surroundings, and his speech.  He pursues brahmacharya (self-restraint) by limiting his consumption and swearing off sex.  He seeks purity in keeping his surroundings clean and instructing others to do so.   He practices ahimsa (non-violence) through his staunch vegetarianism.  He advocates for Hindustani identity when he refuses to remove his turban, translates papers into accessible Indian languages, and insists upon wearing his khadi dhoti.  Every “experiment with truth” he runs is enacted in the petri dish of his life.  And the way he approaches the mundane realities of everyday – from food to clothes, from housework to administrative work – reinforces or undermines some ‘lived value’ he holds.  Ultimately, in Gandhi’s case, those lived values – the ahimsa, brahmacharya, servanthood, identity, purity that he cultivated – became the same strengths which he brought to bear later in his toughest political trials.

There are a couple of moments when you can see the grand trajectory of the political movement in something small.  For example, when Gandhi starts a vegetarian kitchen at his ashram and engages the students to cook in it, it becomes an object-lesson in self-sufficiency.  When a friend comments:  “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj” the links between the most mundane (e.g., schoolboys cooking daal) and the most ambitious (e.g., India achieving political independence) start to come into focus.

Gandhi teaches me that “Very Normal Things” and “Very Big Things” are ultimate one and the same.  But I struggle with this.  I love thinking and writing about the big, the grand, the ambitious, the intellectual – the “Very Big Things.”  There’s some part of me that thinks that I will do my part in solving all the world’s problems by coming up with deep insights and articulating them in a compelling way.  And yet, when I focus on the “Very Big Things,” I don’t necessarily see the change I seek.

Given this, I’m trying to focus on the “Very Normal Things.”  Great things are the result of small, everyday actions, lived with intentionality, improved upon by reflection, and accumulated over time.  Even the most inspirational leaders live their lives day-by-day.  So I am building faith that if I do my “Very Normal Things” well, they’ll build into something weightier over time.  That feels happily accessible, but also a bit daunting.  It makes me realize that I’m indeed doing “Very Big Things” with every small action.

The small contains the key to the big. 

Off to do “Very Normal Things” with my Sunday,

One final fun fact:  Gandhi also just took away my excuse for not going to the gym:  “. . . I believe even now, that, no matter what amount of work one has, one should always find some time for exercise, just as one does for one’s meals.  It is my humble opinion that, far from taking away from one’s capacity for work, it adds to it.”

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two)

When I travel, I often select my reading material based on something appropriate to my destination.  Headed to Johannesburg in May, I read Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories, a collection of vivid vignettes of South African life after apartheid.  Headed to Seoul in September, I picked up Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom to get a view into everyday Korean life.  And over the last thirteen days in India, I read Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography – or, as he titles it The Story of My Experiments with Truth.


Gandhi was one of the most effective and influential advocates for Swaraj (Indian home-rule) and his accompanying tactic of ahimsa (non-violence).  His name is known the world over.  As I loaded him onto my Kindle I expected to read about the story behind the “Very Big Things” he accomplished:  Articulations of high-minded ideals.  The narrative of an epic political movement.  Sweeping insights into leadership.

Do you know what I found?

Instead of hearing about Gandhi’s “Very Big Things” I was struck by the mundane, the minute, and the everyday.  Gandhi spends his life doing what most of us would recognize as the same “Very Normal Things” we ourselves do, but with a heightened sense of morals and meaning.  Here’s 80% of what Gandhi talks about in his autobiography:

Very Normal Thing #1:  Eating
If Gandhi has one lifelong obsession, it’s food.  In his teenage years, Gandhi starts running with the ‘bad boy’ crowd and sneaks away to eat meat.  He later repents of his rebellious ways and becomes a relentless advocate for vegetarianism.  Over time, he pushes this even further, swearing off salt, lentils, and dairy.  At one point, while sick, he drinks some goat’s milk at a doctor’s recommendation and then beats himself up for the rest of his life about it.  He ends up as a fruitarian who eats five or fewer types of food each day and finishes dinner by sundown.

Very Normal Thing #2:  Getting Dressed
Gandhi talks extensively about his Anglicized clothes in London.  He buys a chimney-pot hat for nineteen shillings and an evening suit for ten pounds.  When he moves to South Africa, he’s still consciously distinct from other Indians in his attire, in his hybrid frock-coat and turban.  In fact, there’s an entire turban-wearing fiasco when he joins the courts.  Over time, however, Gandhi dresses more simply.  He moves to a shirt, coat, and dhoti combo and later resolves to wear only khadi (locally produced hand-woven cloth) – a highly politicized fashion statement in keeping with the Swadeshi movement.

Very Normal Thing #3:  Moving Around
In the years he travels between India, England, and South Africa, there are long recounts of boat trips.  We learn what he ate on the boat (fruits and nuts), what he did on the boat (played chess, learned Tamil and Urdu, accidentally visited a hooker in Zanzibar), and who he hung out with on the boat (the Captain, a couple of English guys, a Puritan).   Later in life, Gandhi takes a lot of trains, particularly in third-class.  There is plenty of drama about train ticket cancellations, whether he gets bedding or not, how dirty and crowded the trains are, and the difficulty of getting on the train when people block the doors (it’s true; it’s happened to me as well).

In short, Gandhi’s autobiography is filled with extensive descriptions of “Very Normal Things.”

With that, I’ll pause this post given the length and continue with Part Two.  Look forward to “Very Normal Things” #4 through #6 as well as how it all comes together.  Continue in Part Two of Two here.

Also, if you have not yet done so, hit the ‘subscribe’ button on the right of the page to ensure you get other upcoming posts.  (It makes me really happy.  Seriously.  Like macaroni-and-cheese-happy.)

Glad to be home,

Fun facts about Gandhi:

  • Gandhi thinks the Eiffel Tower is ridiculous.
  • Gandhi ends up in a brothel a couple of times, but always by accident (oops!).
  • Gandhi was all about home-schooling for his kids.
  • While living in England, Gandhi took dance lessons.
  • Gandhi was a married as a child at the age of only thirteen.

95% of Your Behaviors are Unconscious and Automatic

Sometimes I run into a description of intentionality that illustrates the topic far better than I ever could.  This happened recently when I was reading an interesting book called Sink, Float or Swim.  Here’s the quote, illustrated:



fraction of


I love the vivid examples of living unintentionally (or paraconsciously) as they ring true.  I hate when people use their phones while having a conversation, and yet I find myself slipping and doing it as well.

I’m not fully successful yet, but I’m just trying to keep myself a bit more in the conscious sphere and heading towards that ‘much better way.’  And I’ll recommit by putting my phone down right now.

Onward and upward,

These Are a Few of My Favorite Biases

I often think that if we all become more aware of how we’re acting and choiceful about how we want to be, we’ll live more in alignment with ourselves and with each other.  Sure, the future won’t always turn out exactly as we intend, but at least we’ll be consciously trying in a direction we decide upon.

What I often forget, though, is that awareness is not just a consciousness of our intentions and actions, but also a consciousness of our patterns of thinking.  We all have a collection of cognitive biases that run invisibly within our heads – the biases which consistently guide us away from truthful, clear thinking.  They influence us without us ever realizing it; they inform how we see the world and decide to act.  All are proven via extensive social science research.  And that’s the craziest part – we know about them, we’ve proven them, and yet we all keep on getting things wrong in the same ways over and over again.

cognitive biases
I recently came across a fantastic list of cognitive biases in Michael Schermer’s book The Believing Brain and it reminded me of all the ways I am consistently getting things wrong.  I’m always trying to recommit to becoming more aware of not just what I want but how I’m thinking, and this was a good prompt in that direction.  They say the solution isn’t getting rid of the bias (which, in my experience, is near impossible), but instead becoming aware of how it might impact you in everyday situations.

As for me, confirmation bias, halo effect and authority bias are always cropping up in my world.  Which of these do you see in your life?  Which are you actively combating?

julie andrews
With compassion for all our invisible shortcomings!

A Short List of Cognitive Biases
Attribution biasTendency to attribute different causes for your own beliefs and actions than that of others.  It comes in at least two forms:

  • Situational/dispositional attribution bias: (“I succeed at work because I’m smart and hard-working, but he succeeds because he’s lucky and has the right sponsors.”  “I screwed up this recipe because the kids were screaming, but he screwed up the recipe because he’s a horrible cook.”)
  • Intellectual/emotional attribution bias:  (“I have a well-reasoned ideology behind my conservatism, but you are just a bleeding heart liberal.”)

Authority bias:  Tendency to value the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about (“Arnold told me that purgatory was never a concept in Catholicism; he majored in religion, so he would know.”)

Availability heuristic:  Tendency to assign probabilities to potential outcomes based on examples that are immediately available to us, especially those that are vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged (“If you’re a woman, you’re very likely to get breast cancer.  I know two other women who have been dealing it with this past year.”)

Believability bias:  Tendency to evaluate the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion  (“It seems reasonable that genetically-modified foods cause cancer, so the science is likely right.”)

Confirmation bias:  Tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence (“See, this US Today article says that Obamacare is driving small enterprises out of business!  But I really question the methodology of that NY Times article on why Obamacare is affordable for even mom-and-pop shops.”)

Consistency bias:  Tendency to recall one’s past beliefs, attitudes and behaviors as resembling present beliefs, attitudes and behaviors more than they actually do (“I’ve basically always believed that there’s no way intelligent life could be out there.”)

False-consensus bias:  Tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with their beliefs or that will go along with them in a behavior (“Don’t you think that other people will want to protest owl habitat destruction too?”)

Generalization bias (stereotyping):  Tendency to assume that a member of a group will have certain characteristics believed to represent that group without having actual information about that particular member  (“She’s a banker; you know what that means.”)

Halo effect:  Tendency for people to generalize one positive trait of a person to all the other traits of that person (“She’s beautiful – so she’s probably pretty smart and athletic too.”)

Hindsight bias:  Tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge.  I love it’s nickname “creeping determinism.”  (“If you look at the indications before the Challenger launch, anyone could have seen the explosion coming.”)

Inattentional blindness bias:  Tendency to miss something obvious and general while attending to something special and specific (“I don’t know why all those people were on the corner protesting, but did you see that woman’s blue pants?”)  The classic example of the inattentional blindness bias is here.

In-group bias:  Tendency for people to value the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be fellow members of their group and to discount the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be members of a different group  (“A friend at work told me that it’s dangerous to walk in the Southwest Corridor at night.”)

Just-world bias (victim-blaming):  Tendency for people to search for things that the victim of an unfortunate event might have done to deserve it.  (We’ve seen this in spades with recent news coverage on Ferguson, sexual assault on college campuses, bullying, and domestic abuse in the NFL.)

Negativity bias:  Tendency to pay closer attention and give more weight to negative events, beliefs, and information than to positive (“It just seems like every time you turn on the news, it’s all bad things happening.”)

Not-invented-here bias:  Tendency to discount the value of a belief or source of information that does not come from within (“Sure, but that’s what the consultants said, not what my research turned up.”)

Rosy retrospection bias:  Tendency to remember past events as being more positive than they actually were (“Ahh, the good old days.  So much better than life since everyone got a cell phone!”)

Self-justification bias:  Tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done (“It was the middle of the highway during rush hour.  If I pulled over to talk to the woman whose car I rear-ended, we both would have been in danger.  That’s not worth it for a small fender bender.”)

Status quo bias:  Tendency to opt for whatever it is we are used to (“I picked the health plan that I’ve had for years.”)

Sunk-cost bias (escalation of commitment):  Tendency to believe in something because of the cost sunk into that belief (“I’ve supported gun control all my life; there is no way I’m going to change that opinion now.”)

Trait-ascription bias:  Tendency for people to assess their own personality, behavior and beliefs are more variable and less dogmatic than those of others (“I would definitely change my mind given good date; I’m not so sure about my opponents, however.”)

The examples are my own, but the bias descriptions are sourced from The Believing Brain:  From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer

And here’s the even crazier part:  If you think that these biases don’t apply to you, then you’re succumbing to the ultimate meta-bias:  the bias blind spotThat is our “tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases on other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs.”  Annoying, isn’t it?

bias blind spot