Celebrate all the people who touch your Life

Every single person comes into your Life with a reason.
Some come to help you, some come to hurt you. Some love you and some hate you. Some lift you up and some let you down. Some stay with you and some leave. But never doubt that all of them are messengers, carrying Life’s lessons with them, for you to learn, evolve, grow and thrive!
We don’t see all of our lifetime’s encounters with people in this perspective because we constantly worry about those that don’t understand us or love us. We crave for their attention. Instead we must learn to look at the many, many more who actually do believe in us and are there for us. The best principle in Life is to stop expecting people to understand you or love you. On the other hand, know them and understand that they are messengers, who are teaching you how to live and experience Life, and love them for who they are.
At the age of 27, I was the Executive Assistant to one of India’s biggest takeover tycoons. I was based in Singapore. We used to work out of the famed Ritz Carlton Millennia hotel – I also had a room for myself there. One of the people that came visiting my boss was a lady called Hema. She was about 60 then. She decided to stay in Singapore for about a month. We had put her up at a hotel nearby. But she preferred hanging around at the Ritz Carlton. I particularly despised her. She was talkative and nosy. She tried to figure out what I was doing on an hourly basis and gave me, much to my dislike, unsolicited advice on how I must be working. Around the same time, my relationship with my boss had soured. He was always a difficult man to work with. He was very abusive and harassed me no end – making me work 22-hour days without a break for weeks on end. I was simply not enjoying my job. And over time, I had morphed from being an Executive Assistant to becoming a personal assistant. I once told my wife, over phone, from Singapore, “I just hate this job. Except buying him a condom, I am his Jeeves, for every other practical purpose.” But I ploughed on. I had two young children and a wife to support back in India.
Then, one day, perhaps because of the sheer volume of work I was handling, I lost my boss’ passport in a taxi (the passport was retrieved the next day as the Lost & Found service works efficiently in Singapore) as I reached Changi airport to check him in for a flight to Zurich he was due to take. He was to reach Changi in 30 minutes after finishing a meeting. When he came and realized what had happened, he bawled at me in front of all the passengers in the First Class check-in lane of Singapore Airlines. I felt humiliated. Later that evening when I got back to my room at the Ritz Carlton, Hema was sitting in the ante-chamber, which doubled up as our office. “Gosh,” I thought, “the last person I wanted to see!!” But when she enquired why I looked so beaten, I told her what had happened. She sat me down and made me some hot coffee. She said, “You are just my son’s age. So, please don’t mind me saying this. I think you are wasting your time here. You have the ability to lead people. And you are being treated like a doormat? I have been watching you over the past few weeks. You are sincere and hard-working. Perhaps, you should think about moving on. You should be close to your family, especially in the years that your children are growing up.”
What she said, made me think. Over the next couple of days, I quit my job. It’s been almost 20 years now. And in this time, I have rarely been unhappy with whatever I have done – no matter how difficult or daunting my job, at several times, has been. Interestingly, I have never met Hema after that time. I have tried to trace her – but despite facebook, I have not been lucky. I can only think of her as playing a crucial role in my Life – as someone who stepped in to deliver a message to me at a time when I needed it the most. She did that and she stepped back!
Remember that Life does not always link you to people that you want to be connected with. But it connects you, with the compassion of a Mother and the guile of a Master, with people that are part of a larger cosmic design! Your design, your Life’s road-map. People come into your Life and leave you to take you from point to point, on this road-map. On this journey, celebrate all the people who touch your Life, no matter who they are and irrespective of how they impact you, and remain eternally grateful for every encounter, every connection, every experience, every teaching and every lesson.

Say “Yes to Life” – no matter what!

The easiest response to Life, when things don’t go well, is to turn grumpy and be depressed. But feeling that way is not going to get you anywhere. The only way to respond to Life is to say “YES” to it – no matter what your circumstances may be!
I was thinking about a couple, close friends of our family, last evening. Their first born, a boy, would be 17 now. They live in Singapore. The boy was afflicted by muscular dystrophy (MD) – a progressively degenerative muscular disorder – when he was barely a few months old. In the case of the boy the disease is severe and for all the complications that come with the condition, he has very little time left. Even so, the couple are the most positive people you can ever meet. They are happy looking after their child and supporting him to live as normal a Life as is possible in these conditions. The wife once told me, “It seemed impossible to accept the reality when the doctors shared the news with us. I don’t think any parent can deal with such a prognosis with regard to his or her child. But over time, I noticed that despite what his limitations were, our boy wanted to do things that all children do. That’s when my husband and I resolved that we are not going to mourn our fate. We are going to live our Life, with our child, helping him live fully too – as long as he can.” I have never seen this couple grieve over their child’s condition. They have always been happy – despite all the challenges that come with raising a child having MD.
The immediate response to Life’s challenges is a big “NO”. But saying “NO” to Life is pointless. Because it changes nothing. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, in his profound book (published in 1946) “Man’s Search for Meaning” writes, “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the Universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” What Frankl says is true. Wishing away Life’s realities, pining that your Life be different or mourning your circumstances get you nowhere. It is always what it is. So, when you are suffering – and you realize that just as no one can alleviate your suffering but you, suffering in a situation cannot change it either – you learn to accept your Life for the way it is. Through such acceptance you seize the opportunity to be happy! That’s what saying “YES” to Life is all about!

You create your own reality

Don’t blame others. Whosoever they are and whatever they have done to you. In a way, you, me, each of us, creates our own realities. You are responsible for whatever is happening to you, with you. And unless you recognize this, and own this reality, you cannot escape suffering.

Through ownership, through taking responsibility, through being accountable for yourself, you awaken. Only when you are awake and aware, you can be free from being controlled by others or avoid being enslaved by your own thinking and actions!

About 20 years ago, I was executive assistant to a rich billionaire. I was based in Singapore but traveling the world on work. I used to love my work, because I was learning so much every single day. But I used to hate__and fear__my boss who was abusive and unreasonable all of the time. I had to work 20+ hours daily and travel without a break for weeks on end. One particularly stressful day, at the end of a harrowing week, when I thought my boss would travel to Zurich and leave me alone for the time his journey would take, he changed his plans at the nth moment. Nothing surprising about it. But the reason why he changed his plans at the last minute was absurd!  He decided to not take the early evening flight from Changi to Zurich that day because he ‘felt like having fish head curry at the Apollo Banana Leaf off Serangoon Road’. So, while he went to eat his meal, I was dispatched to the airport with his baggage to check him, and another senior colleague Paul ( a New Zealander, the President of our company) traveling with him, in on the next flight departing Changi around midnight local time, get their boarding passes (in those days proxies could check in for passengers though they were not allowed to travel!) and await them both at the airport. Perhaps because I was exhausted and tired, perhaps because I loathed these last minute, unreasonable changes my boss made, perhaps because I hated my boss, or perhaps for all three reasons, I took my eye off the ball. I lost Paul’s passport in the taxi. Result: while my boss could take the flight out to Zurich, Paul couldn’t travel that night. My boss let off a lot of steam in full public view at the Singapore Airlines’ check-in bay in Changi while I stood silently, my gaze down on the floor, allowing myself to be ‘slaughtered’ like a helpless lamb.

Paul and I took a taxi back to our hotel. As soon as we were seated, I broke down and cried inconsolably. I blamed my fate, I blamed my boss, I blamed the taxi driver and I blamed my earlier company!! I did that arguing that I would never have left them for this job had they been good employers!

Paul allowed me to explode and express myself. After about 20 minutes, after I had sobered down and had wiped my tears, Paul spoke: “Son, each of us is responsible for our realities. Nobody forced you to take this job up. Nobody is forcing you to put up with your boss if you don’t see eye to eye with him. He’s not the one to be blamed for being who he is. You must assume responsibility for allowing him to treat you that way. He doesn’t talk to me the way he does to you. He knows he dare not. So, stop sulking. Stop the blame game. Take charge. And get on with your Life! Don’t worry about my passport. I have called the limo company and they will check with their ‘Lost & Found’ service tomorrow. In Singapore, anything that passengers leave behind in taxis is turned over to “Lost & Found”.”

Paul’s advice appeared to me as if it was an impromptu sermon that I needed to hear. I took his point to heart. In a couple of days following this episode, I quit that job and returned to India. In these two decades, my level of awareness has only improved. I have come to a state where I accept my realities and own total responsibility for them. I have learned that all the guile and craftiness of the people around us, or even their nastiness and unreasonableness, is only to make us more aware. And staying on the ball, in the moment, being alert, is integral to intelligent living!

Each person has a role in our Life’s journey. When we see each one as an enabler of our lives, we will stop blaming them, or ourselves. We will then live richer, fuller, lives__peaceful within and with all the others in our circle of influence!

Pause and celebrate the miracle of your family

An intrinsic aspect of intelligent living is to not just earn a living but to learn to spend quality time with your family. In such a connected world, where there are so many options for children to learn and display their talent, I do agree that Life for us parents, especially in an urban or metro context, can at times be harrowing. Ferrying the children to and from events, activities, hobby classes and school, in the midst of our ever-demanding work schedules and corporate careers, can often appear thankless. And then there is the time that you need with your companion, just to chill out, doing nothing! Phew! Where’s the time for yourself?

Sometimes family Life can get very demanding and complicated. With so many schedules to coordinate, with so many things to do, with so many aspirations to fulfill. Even so, there’s great value in learning to pause, and celebrating the miracle of your family.

Some years ago, when I was based in Singapore, I had a friend Steve, who was the general manager of the hotel I stayed in as a long-term guest. He was a big-hearted man from Vancouver, Canada. He must have been in his late 40s then and I was in my late 20s. He and his wife loved Singapore and he was doing a great job leading the hotel he was employed at. Then suddenly he told me over dinner, one night, that he was going back to live in Canada. His three daughters, it appeared, were in various years of finishing undergrad and grad schools. And he said, “We want to be with them, for them.” I remember wondering, as a career-obsessed youngster, what a crazy idea it was to give up such a great job and go back to take care of three ‘grown up young adult daughters’. Steve perhaps read my mind. He said rather prophetically, “When you grow up to be my age, all you will want is happiness for your children. Your success and happiness will lie in their own.”

I certainly did not take Steve’s words to heart. So, even as I continued my quest to build a career, flying around the world, at the cost of not being able to spend time with my family, I did not quite realize what I was missing. Those were very early days of the internet. Hotmail was not even around as a free-for-all service. Phone calls were mighty expensive. So, we had a fax machine installed at home for my wife and I to be in touch. One day, as I was lounging in my hotel room in Rome, after a long day’s work, the bell desk slipped a fax message under the door. It was from my son. He must have been hardly six then but he knew how to operate the old Compaq 486 (!!!) we had at home. He had managed to pull out a computer clipart picture of a globe, pasted it on a document, printed it and faxed it to me. Below the clipart, in his scrawly handwriting, he had written, ‘Where in the world are you? Come soon!”  My eyes welled up, and I remembered Steve, as I read that message. I was not sure I did it consciously, but over the next several months I worked hard and eventually managed to relocate back to India.

Even after I came back and set up a business here in India, it took me a long, long time to discover the magic of my own family. I often ended up getting trapped in the rat race, letting clients, business and my team take over my time, all the time! I am glad, am grateful to Life and am humbled, that I finally did manage to yank myself out of that rut!!! When my daughter was born, 18 years ago, I was that ambitious, globe-trotting CEO. I often used to ask my wife, when I called from airports half-way across the world, half in jest, half in trepidation, if our daughter would even recognize me! Today my daughter (and of course, my son) and I are the best of friends. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The upside of a business slowdown, I have come to believe, is this amazing friendship I have struck with my children. Today Steve’s words ring so very true to me.

Unmistakably, living fully is a full-time job!  Living fully surely involves experiencing the family we create and raise than just providing for them. There’s nothing more valuable in Life, you will realize, sooner than later, than the friendship of your children and the companionship of your spouse. A family is where you learn to live. You learn compassion, you learn to teach, you learn to lead, to serve, to give, you learn to understand the value in constructive confrontation, in forgiveness and in simply having a lot of fun, laughing, and goofing off! You may not realize it but your family not just complements you, but completes you! As someone has said so wisely, “Family is not just important. It is everything!”


No experience is ever wasted!

No trial, pain or experience is ever a waste of your time or effort!

As we grow in Life it is our experiences that make us who we are. Many a time we are having to involve ourselves in doing things that seemingly have little or no meaning or relevance then. After all pain happens only when something you don’t want presents itself in your Life! So when we endure pain, we wonder why it had to be happening to us in the first place? We therefore resist that ‘uninvited’ experience. Our resistance plunges us into sorrow and depression. But if you look back at your Life so far, all that you have been through is what has made you who you are. Your real education happened in Life, and continues to happen now too, ONLY through the myriad experiences you have had.

I learnt this lesson the hard way too.

Almost two decades ago, I worked as the Executive Assistant to India’s pioneering telecom entrepreneur. This person prides himself to be the richest Tamilian in the world. I had quit a fairly successful media career to join him as his EA in Singapore. An EA’s role is actually one that involves a lot of planning, strategizing, reporting and number-crunching, while leading projects and, often, crisis management efforts. In the normal course, good EAs, to great Chairmen or organizational leaders, in about a decade, graduate to running those organizations themselves. After all, the EA would have learned so much about leadership and management, at the feet of the leader!

I had such a vision for myself as I took up my position at Singapore. I was barely 27 then.

But I was in for a shock. The man turned out to be brute at work. He paid me well, no doubt. But flogged me to work for 20 hours a day. I had to travel with him around the world. Living out of a suitcase. He was both impulsive and abusive. So, we would have barely landed in a country, a new city and checked into a hotel. But he would want the next morning’s flight out. He was never organized. And I was just the opposite. I liked, and still do, to have a daily list of tasks, maintain schedules and preferred quiet periods where I could sit and work on minutes of meetings, whet contractual documentation and create value for my boss and our organization. We were at that point working on two projects that would__and eventually did__revolutionize India. One was the introduction of cellular telephony and the other was introduction of Direct To Home TV broadcasting __ both through new legislations in India’s Parliament. My boss was a maverick, deal maker. He was not an institution builder. He liked to get businesses off the ground, often corrupting powers that be in the process, and then sell them to larger business houses for a profit.

Initially, I suffered the grueling schedule, the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies believing it to be a learning experience. Traveling different time zones each week, managing a non-stop 20-hour day, daily, for over 18 months, non-stop, was indeed a learning experience.

But slowly I began to hate my work. Because it made no sense to be on tenter-hooks at the time. I lived by the edge literally. I had to always be around my boss. Despite all my preparation, I would fail. Because he had this knack of asking for the one thing I had not thought of or prepared for! He had, in addition to my responsibilities as his EA, also loaded me with responsibilities that normally have to be handled by a personal assistant. So, here I was, in one moment sitting in meetings with satellite manufacturers, or equity funds or global telecom players, and at another moment rushing to get his tickets confirmed or buying him coffee or Aspirin. Since he maintained no laptop, or email or papers himself, I had to make sure our documentation was perfect. And where was the time to do any documentation when you spend 20 hours on your feet each day? My boss invested in stocks heavily across the world. So, he slept for one hour spells during the day or night, depending on which stock market he was tracking that day. But never beyond an hour at a time. That hour, I could not sleep. I used that golden hour of peace and quiet to complete documentation, struggle with sending mails (email was so new at that time: Hotmail was not yet born!) and faxes. And I had no help.

I could notice that my efficiency was clearly suffering. I was losing hair and gaining weight. I tried broaching the subject of working in a more organized manner with my boss. But he would only get more abusive. He would shout expletives at me. It was very embarrassing. And it affected my self-esteem gravely. So, I started fearing speaking to him. Soon, I became a robot, just executing orders. Within me, I was grieving though. It was humiliating and frustrating.

One day, I walked into a meeting at Singapore, that I had coordinated, at the Ritz Carton Hotel’s Presidential Suite (where my boss was staying). I lived in the mini suite opposite to his. The meeting was between my boss and the Chairman of one of the largest business houses in India. My boss asked me for a set of papers which were not part of the agenda being discussed. In fact, they were completely unconnected with this business group we were meeting. I explained to him that I had had no time to prepare them and intended to get them ready shortly.

He shouted at me, in front of our visitors: “Punnakku! Thevidiya Payan. You are both stupid and foolish!‘Punnakku’ means ‘cow fodder’ and ‘Thevidiya Payan’ means ‘son of a whore’ in Tamizh. Both the Chairman of the business group visiting us and his CFO, who was part of the meeting too, knew Tamizh very well.

I felt like a worm. I quit that day. And took a flight back home. It took two months of sleeping entire days and much caring by my loving wife to recuperate from that traumatic experience. In the months that followed, even as my boss tried making peace with me and tried wooing me back, I wondered what a horrible waste of time this whole stint had been. I did not see any reason why I should have been paid so highly and treated so poorly. I did not understand why despite my integrity and ethics-based value systems I had to go through what I went through. I grieved struggling to make sense of the whole experience.

To be sure, at that time, I couldn’t understand it at all.

But over the years, with newer experiences coming in my way, I can see how that stint with the man, those 24 months,  had prepared me to deal with Life better.

1.   His temperamental and abusive nature have made me stronger. I have learned to face 
      and deal with any amount of irrational, unreasonable criticism.

2.  The 20-hour work days, not knowing what will hit you from where, have made me prepare meticulously. Sometimes, people around me think I am very paranoid. I am not really paranoid as much as I am usually well prepared.

3. Thegrief and the trauma I went through, when I was socked and beaten up, metaphorically, each day, have made me, despite all my preparation, to accept the bizarre turns Life can take at times. So, nothing really surprises or shocks me anymore!

4.   And being his EA and PA have made me, hopefully, a very adept crisis manager.

5.  Allthat crazy international travel have made me a road warrior. I can survive in any condition, in any airport, anywhere in the world! And I have learned to love travel and make my hotel rooms my home where I find peace and sleep the moment I hit the pillow!

I am claiming all of this with all humility. Because I am still learning each day from each new experience. But, without doubt, without that experience I wouldn’t be half as tough a person that I am today.

I met my former boss, many years later, in the lobby of the Mumbai Taj, at the Gateway of India. I held his hand and thanked him profusely for the experience. I said, “Without you, I wouldn’t be the AVIS I am today.” He was startled, but gave me a hug and invited me to stay in touch!

So, don’t resist what you are going through. Everything happens for a reason. If we knew the reason before hand, we would end up intellectualizing the experience. Like the way we intellectualize our academic syllabi through school or college. Life is a hard teacher, as someone said. Because she always gives the test first and the lesson later. Simply, accept and love whatever you are going through. Because it is preparing you for what you will have to live through! With each new experience, you can only get better with living this Life better!