What I learnt about vulnerability experimenting with it: Part 2

Lessons I learnt about vulnerability from consciously choosing to be as vulnerable as I could for some time. With a little activity in the end if you feel like experimenting.

Late 2015. I had spent a few months now speaking to people about love. The word “vulnerability”, not surprisingly, had shown up often in my conversations. “For me, love is when I can be vulnerable with someone”, several of the people I spoke to would tell me. So, while I was reading up on it, I had started asking questions about vulnerability, trying to define it – what does it feel like? When do you feel vulnerable – why do you call that vulnerability? We had made vulnerability scales and plotted our intimacies on them (I wrote about this here). I had done my homework. I had read up on it. I knew what vulnerability meant. “Emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty”, Brene Brown defines it in her TED talk.

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

Now. I am an experiential learner. As I plotted my own vulnerabilities on a graph, thinking deeply after every conversation about my own experience of vulnerability, it felt only obvious to try it out. What would happen, I wondered, if I were fully vulnerable (as per my knowing conscious) with every single person I met? With nothing much to lose at that point in my life (I was already interviewing strangers about love), I decided to find out.

Synopsis: Let’s start with the spoilers first

In a conversation with a friend about this, she asked me to what being vulnerable meant to me in this experiment, throwing me my own question. I explained with a metaphor, the obvious one, one that I have frequently used since.

Being vulnerable is like deciding to be okay being naked. No make-up. No well-fitting clothes carefully chosen to highlight the good selected parts. Embracing the bodies we inhabit. Being open about our blemishes and scars and muffin tops. You embrace them as fact, whether you like them or not.

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Illustration: “Too Good For You” by Polly Nor

The first few times I stepped out “naked” in this way, it was interesting. There was an Adrenalin rush, even. Luckily for me, I was in the middle of interviewing strangers about love, so this blended quite easily.

Once that wore off though, the doubt began. The thrill faded. The supportive-ness of “early adopters”, as it turns out, was not universal. I was sometimes met with skepticism. With sarcasm. With apathy. I had to clarify more than once that I wasn’t, I swear, hitting on them. I made mistakes, several of them. Initially, I didn’t think much of them; they were a part of the process after all.

Then one day I saw the patterns – there was a design flaw. That’s when the experiment truly began. Long story short, that’s when I then started learning.

It has been over two years since. I have suspended the experiment – sometimes consciously, sometimes conveniently, and also come back to it in little spurts, each time starting at a different point than before. Sifting through my notes from the experiment days for perspective recently, I thought I was finally ready to write about it. This post is a little bit about the experiment and what parts of it did and did not make it beyond the experiment. But mostly, it is about finally being able to put all the lessons together for coherence – a set of reminders I could frequently use myself.

Here it is.

The Experiment

Step 1: To be or not to not be

How does one start being vulnerable?

In the post-Brene Brown world, we are inundated with images of vulnerability where it has worked – raw op-eds and honest talks and emotional books.  So, I started with that as a plan. Radical honesty. Tell it as it is. Let people in. Don’t be afraid to cry. Tell people you love them.

Then one day, I was at a college giving a lecture on story-collecting and story-telling. When the questions started, someone asked me about some of the hardest stories I collected. I told them about interviewing a man who used to be an abusive boyfriend, and what it was like to listen to his story while managing my own triggers. The conversation escalated quickly. The students spoke about the support groups they had for abusive relationships and the things they had learnt. It was emotionally charged, raw and a tad bit jostled. As we walked out of that lecture, my friend who had invited me to that class, commented: “You can’t turn it off, can you? This vulnerability thing?” I don’t think she meant it as criticism, but it certainly wasn’t a compliment.

We sat in the staff room afterwards, had coffee and spoke about a lot of things. I do not remember them. But I remember thinking about this question as I walked out of the college. When does vulnerability become a bad thing? Where does my responsibility lie? What are my boundaries? 

Step 2: Peeling off the layers

I went back to the metaphor (I think better with them). That’s when it hit me: This whole time, I had been trying to “look naked”. Sure, that was also uncomfortable, but that wasn’t the same as being naked. Being naked was about stripping off the layers, not about wearing a body-fitting naked-looking suit. All this while I have been trying to be vulnerable based on my version of what vulnerability looks like. All I had to do instead was not try so hard to not be vulnerable. What I needed instead was to not hide under the clothes because I was uncomfortable with the nakedness but because I was choosing to be that way. I needed to be more mindful of why I was wearing the clothes in the first place. I needed to be comfortable in the skin and body underneath, so that I don’t feel exposed and defenseless without it.

Basically, instead of trying to act vulnerable, I had to be vulnerable, which meant starting to peel off the layers that prevented me from being that way. This needed to be done gently:  I had been wearing some of these filters for so long, that I’d almost forgotten how they were different from the skin itself.  Think of it like taking off makeup like the fake eyelashes. You cannot just rip it off. You need to gently peel it from the root, from where it is attached.

So, I started paying attention to the filters I was putting on. What was I afraid of? Why were the assumptions I was making? What was I protecting? Initially, just observing, not trying to change anything. 

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

I realised that I had three kinds of fears I was trying to protect myself from. I was afraid that:

(1) … I’d be hurt (or that I won’t get the response I want).

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Drawing: Liana Finck

If I let someone in, I was afraid, they’d then be able to hurt me. And I didn’t want to be hurt. I’d rather keep someone out (and miss out on the possibilities that could bring) than being hurt. I was terrified of being hurt.There was another thing: I’d been taught, mostly through the popular culture, that the coolest women (or people) were the ones who didn’t allow themselves to be hurt. The girls who got hurt because they let someone in, had after all, had no one to blame but themselves. That getting hurt was my fault, that it meant I was weak. And I wasn’t going to be weak.

Sometimes, this fear wasn’t about hurt, but more about not getting the response I’d like. Like when someone crossed their boundaries a little bit, I’d be afraid to say that they did because I was afraid they won’t respond understandingly to it.

(2) …. I’d be exposed.

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Drawing: Liana Finck

On my better days, I felt like I’d managed to find the right balance between what I wanted and what was expected of me. On the worse days, the balance was hard to find, so I’d often find myself resorting to being who I was expected to be until I figured out who I was. The fake it till you make it strategy, which, to clarify – need not always be a bad strategy; sometimes, like at work, it was actually a good idea. However, when stemming from fear, I realised that sometimes it was more a response to fear than a strategy. On the days that I was afraid, I had my strongest filters on – because these are the days when I am most afraid of someone finding what’s underneath – because I was most unsure if I liked who that person was underneath. Like a debilitating perpetual impostor syndrome of sorts.

(3) … I’d find out things about myself I am not yet ready to know.

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Illustration: Liana Finck

This was the easiest to miss, and added to the list much later, several layers down. It’s like not getting that strange rash checked because you don’t really want to know what has happened, and you’d much rather hope it just goes away. There were sides to me that I didn’t want to know, and I was afraid that if I let myself be myself, I could no longer pretend I have these sides. For example, If I told him I cared for him, in the anxiety that follows of what he will say back, I’d have to face the fact that I really really want him to like me back, that there’s that slightly needy side to me – the side that does actually want a relationship, the side that is terrified of being unlovable, which the “cool, doesn’t care about what the world thinks” side of me doesn’t want to accept. I’d rather rationalise what I feel for him and convince myself that it is not that important, than deal with finding out why it is important to me and face my “shadow side”.

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Illustration: “Be You But Better” by Polly Nor

Let me add one disclaimer here: some of these things I wasn’t ready to find out also had hidden within it trauma from the past, which I truly wasn’t fully equipped to work on yet. I needed help and support to work through these things. Sometimes our minds protect us with good reason, and those times need some extra care and even some extra help. Being vulnerable also meant asking for that help when I needed it.

Step 3: Fact checking

The thing about these fears is this: while they are not entirely untrue, they need not always be true. And that whole grey area in between is where the empowerment happens. If these fears were strong enough to influence the decisions I made, I wanted to know they were valid fears. I started paying attention to what happened when I did something against that fear. Let me explain.

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Drawing: Liana Finck

Let’s take the first fear – that I’d be hurt. When I found myself putting on the anti-hurt filter, I asked myself what I was really afraid of. “Will they not reply when I send this message?” “What if she makes fun of me (either in front of me or behind my back) when I tell her this?” “What if I get attached to her and realise that she doesn’t care for me as much?” “What if I fail?”. All of these had the probability of being true, but also that of my fear been proven wrong.

Sometimes, when I felt safe, I tried this out.

For example, I’d send that message. I received a reply more frequently than I anticipated.
When I didn’t, I’d ask myself how much it bothered me.
Sometimes, I realised that not that much, actually.
When it did bother me, I’d ask myself why it bothered me that much.
Sometimes, because that reply was logistically important – I needed to make plans, I needed to buy something, etc. In that case, I’d message again, explaining why it was important.
When I did, sometimes, I’d get a message with a sorry. I’d accept the apology and move on.
Sometimes, I didn’t get that reply even then. I’d ask myself again why it bothered me.
Then, sometimes I’d realise that that made me feel ignored or that I wasn’t that important. This is where it got tricky.
On my better days, I’d try to re-consider that conclusion. What were all the other options of what could have happened because of which they didn’t reply? Why was I jumping to this conclusion? Why was it so important for me to be important? Would it be okay for me if I wasn’t that important?
I’d then sometimes have a conversation with that person explaining what I was feeling.
Sometimes, they would respond to that with a reasonable explanation. So long as they acknowledged what I was feeling and I found the reason believable (even if I’d behave differently), I’d move on. Sometimes I didn’t, and I might or might not pursue it further. Either way, it was at least nice to know that they weren’t responding because I wasn’t important – and not personalising it that way would itself reduce the hurt.
On my worse days, I’d let myself feel hurt. And then remind myself that it wasn’t the end of the world. That’s all I’d have the energy for,

Sometimes, however, my fear was indeed true. I did, in fact, get hurt. Those days, I’d feel bad, and I’d let myself be. I just made sure I didn’t tell myself I told you, so! It was still not proof that it was always true.

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Comic: Cyanide and Happiness (Explosm)

The tests didn’t always go well, but to bring my fear to the grey area was massively empowering. When I took these risks in relatively low stakes situation, I realised that one of three things happened with each other:

(1) The test went well – what I fear didn’t happen, or, sometimes, even happy things happened instead.

(2) The test did not go well, but I realised that my hypothesis about why it wouldn’t go well and/or what I would feel if I didn’t go well didn’t hold true – i.e. the reason things didn’t go my way were actually not the worst case scenario I imagined and/or it didn’t suck as much as I expected it to if it didn’t go well.

(3) It went badly. And the fear was true. And it sucked. Just the way I imagined it would be.

Even if the probability of all of these three were equal, the possibility of my worst fear coming true was only 33%. That made it way less risky – at least enough to not be debilitated against that fear. Add to that equation the happiness that came from the time that it did go well and suddenly the fear seems way less daunting. As that popular Instagram quote by Erin Hanson goes, “What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?“. Or, as the Mountain Dew men would say “darr ke aage jeet hai (there’s victory after fear)“. [That’s all the motivational talk I have, promise!]

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Comic: The Awkward Yeti

Observations

So, what did I learn from these tests?

As you can imagine, there were a lot of mini lessons, several of them rather specific. Generally speaking though, there were three biggest (albeit obvious) revelations:

Revelations

(1) So much of what hurt me actually had nothing to do with me!

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

We personalise a lot of what happens to us: “He did this to me”. “She doesn’t care about me”.  When I ran the tests, most commonly I found out that all that hurt actually often had very little to do with me. When she did not reply, it had more to do with the fact that she was low on mindspace – she needed more space, and that took priority. When that boy I was flirting with suddenly started seriously dating this other girl, he was choosing her – which wasn’t the same as he was rejecting me.

That doesn’t mean that everything was forgiven. It just meant that it didn’t have to affect my self-worth. When the friend did not reply because I was not her priority, I still had the choice to decide if I wanted to continue reaching out to her. I could still be upset. It just took away the feeling of “there was something wrong with me/ I wasn’t enough” as an interpretation of the situation. That difference took a while to see clearly, but the more I detached someone’s response to my sense of worth, the less I felt like crap. Sure, I often was sad and upset, but I learnt that it was easy to get over those emotions without the “I wasn’t good enough to be important” was not looming into how I saw myself and carrying forward after that. Her not responding had nothing to do with how good enough I was. And you won’t believe how liberating it was to actually feel that (and not know)!

(2) I was measuring my worth with a checklist of way too many “shoulds” that I didn’t always believe in

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

As I started questioning the masks I was putting on, I realised that I had an image of what  “good enough” looked like: a conditional checklist to measure my worth.  I should be someone who always says the right things. I should be someone who is always liked by everyone around me. I should be all put-together all the time. I should be the perfect student/ daughter/ employee/ girlfriend/ <insert any role here>. I should be extraordinary to be worthy…

You know what I mean. We all have our own lists, lists that feel as real as job descriptions. As I began paying attention to the “shoulds” and started deconstructing them, trying to think of where they originated, I realised that so many of these shoulds actually did not make sense to me. Several of these descriptions had been inherited blindly by those around me. Several of these were embedded in generations of patriarchy and other forms of status quos. Several of these were assumptions. Some of these, I did care about and agree with.

As one of the easiest tests, I’d ask myself “would I admire Meryl Streep (<or insert anyone else you really admire> any less if she wasn’t this well put-together once in a while? Sometimes, I realised that it might not affect what I feel about her at all. Those were the “shoulds” I dropped from the list. Sometimes, when I thought that it might affect my admiration, I asked myself why. That enquiry usually led me to see that should differently, or rephrase it logically – she would be a less perfect woman because she would be less compassionate/ kind/ loyal/ truthful, etc. And those were then values that were worth spending my time in.

So, at the end of this, I did not have a list without any shoulds; I was just a little more on board on the ones that still remained, making it easy to consider them in my behaviour and decision-making.

(3) I, as well as the world, was a work in progress

This sounds obvious. I was pretty sure I knew this. This experiment, however, made me realise how often (and how conveniently) I forget this. Or how often I think “well, he/she/they is a work in progress, but I should be this finished piece, and thus had to be perfect right now”.

Realising that it was okay to be a work in progress allowed me to try. To make mistakes. To be wrong. To be in a learning frame of mind. It allowed me to measure progress by the growth that came from this. And it allowed me to take myself (in my current form) less seriously.

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Comic: Lunarbaboon

Let me explain all this with another metaphor:

The core self I found underneath all those layers of protection, was like a mould-able piece of clay, which could be shaped and reshaped. For a while, I’d thought that I’d managed to get the clay to be shaped exactly the way I wanted it, and so I didn’t want to touch it, thus protecting it with these filters I’d picked up along the way. But, this clay isn’t finished work. And as I learnt more about the shapes that made sense to me, the clay needed to evolve. That took time, and often, it wasn’t the shape I wanted it to be. Sometimes, there were things outside of me that also affected the clay; like say a rock falling on it that flattening it. In those times, I had to take off the rock, and re-shape it. Sometimes, I’d start with an image of what I’d like it to be shaped as, and sometimes, I had to just let the shape emerge. Sometimes I liked the shape, sometimes I didn’t.

In all these cases, I needed to keep working on it. And when I stopped, the clay hardened. It was still mould-able, it just took a while to become flexible again. Vulnerability, I realised, was letting the clay out in the open, ready to be shaped.

Believing in my capacity to change, in turn also helped me be more compassionate to others, and to the fact that they were also works in progress.

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

Speaking of being in a learning frame of mind, here are some of the things I learnt from the mistakes I made in the experiment.

What vulnerability was not

(1) It wasn’t sharing everything that was on my mind. It certainly wasn’t oversharing.

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Comic: Ben Ward in The New Yorker

It was more about sharing only the things I meant. It was about not stopping myself from sharing just because I was afraid. At the same time, it was being aware of the boundaries of others while I shared. It was also about consent. I find the clay metaphor useful for explaining this. Being vulnerable is allowing someone else to help shape the clay. Sharing responsibly is letting people decide if they want to get their hands dirty. It is also taking responsibility for the clay — when the clay is really messy/ watery, are you bringing in someone else and getting their clothes/hands/feet dirty with the expectation of them being able to mould this when you don’t want to yourself? Are they on board with this?

When the situation got (emotionally) intimate, or had the potential to become that way, I’d let the other person know that I was doing this experiment. I’d specifically request them to tell me if they are uncomfortable. I’d check in at different points to make sure they were as well as pay attention to the non-verbal cues.

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Drawing: Liana Finck

This took me time to learn: it was hard to tell the difference in the beginning. With time (and feedback), I learnt to pay attention closely. I figured out the pace and tone that worked (most of the time). More importantly though, I became more attune to my own intention when I shared. I started asking myself more frequently – Why am I sharing this? Was I sharing it for approval? Was I sharing it because I was desperate to receive a certain kind of response? Did I expect them to hold the weight of what I was sharing? Often, this clarified the intention and made the decision easy.

There were friends who had, over time, taken the place of being able to share some of the burdens to be there for me – there was a more established consent from them. In this case, I could share a little more, while still being aware that they were not always in a place in their lives to respond – and that their lack of response (the way I wanted it) or sometimes not consenting to the sharing wasn’t necessarily them failing as a friend.

For those who I had just gotten to know, I learnt to be a little more discerning.  There were two main questions I asked: Had they consented to this? And/or Was this conversation mutually interesting/ valuable? For the second question especially, the questions I had about my intentions helped. If I was looking for to share simply because I needed validation/ to be heard, it wasn’t mutually beneficial.

So, how does one make it beneficial for the other person? One way is to mutually sense-make: I’d ask myself – what is a bigger question I have/ a bigger theme I am trying to make sense of when I share this? Can I learn something from the other person in response? It is one way of interpreting this beautiful touchstone: “When in doubt, turn to wonder“.

(2) It wasn’t  an excuse to do what I wanted to do under the guise of being “authentic”.

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Drawing: Liana Finck

As follows from the previous point: Being vulnerable isn’t about not being accountable. It isn’t about pretending my actions did not have any impact, or not caring about the impact. It is about taking the risk to do actions that felt right and then taking the responsibility for the impact it had. It is apologising when that impact is negatively, and learning from it so as to never repeat it again. And I say this with a warning – the consequences are not always fair.

I lost a couple of friends through some of the mistakes I made in this journey. I apologised sincerely, learnt  thoughtfully and tried hard to not repeat the mistakes after that. One friend forgave me after a few months. One other friend unfriended me on Facebook. Yes, the experiment had real consequences. I am still deeply sorry for the mistakes I made. I am still trying not to repeat the mistakes, while not being too harsh on myself for them.

(3) It wasn’t blindly trusting. Or falling in love with everyone you meet.

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Drawing: Liana Finck

Or forgiving everyone for everything. The more I became aware of what I was feeling when I was being vulnerable, the more clear I also was about what my boundaries were. I was also examining what made me uncomfortable and why I was drawing the boundaries – these boundaries weren’t coming from a blind fear. When in doubt, sometimes it helped to ask the question: is this interaction/ person helping shape the clay for better or is it destructing the clay? Being slightly more clear of these boundaries also allowed me to assert them more clearly. I used to struggle to speak up when my boundaries were being intruded, and expressing that I was uncomfortable sometimes felt even more vulnerable, especially because I had no idea how the other person would respond to this. But wasn’t honouring what I was feeling in the face of that uncertainty what vulnerability was about?

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Drawing: Liana Finck

This also made a huge difference in my close relationships. When I was interviewing people about love, one of the most common things I heard was “for me, love is when I can be vulnerable with someone” – a feeling I quite understood. I’ve mistaken connection (that comes from vulnerability) to be love in the past. As the experience of vulnerability became more common though, so did the sense of connection with people around me – and with that my threshold for what counted as love moved. I could cherish the connection without getting overwhelmed by it. And in many ways, that deepened my capacity for intimacy, and has actually brought me closer to my intimate circle.

(4) It wasn’t weak. It wasn’t about being a doormat. And it certainly wasn’t passive.

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

I think this follows quite clearly from the above paragraphs. But it’s worth stating specifically: being vulnerable made me more willing to take risks, and in order to do so, build my capacity to face the consequences, learn and grow from my mistakes, and face things that I initially feared. I have a long way to go, but I definitely became more courageous than I was before. Courage, that was mostly in the form of believing a little more that I could deal with what happened. Courage that came partially from being a lot more tuned into why I was doing things, drastically reducing regrets that I previously lived with. Courage that came also from taking agency over my actions because I was now “acting” (rather than only thinking) more. And that counts for something, right?

In (kind of) conclusion: So then what happened?

(1) It changed my relationship with myself

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Illustration: Venus Libido

For me, the biggest change that came from this experiment is that (for the lack of a less cheesy way to explain this) I became friends with myself. I have always been a flawed human, I was just no longer (as) ashamed of it because I was more tapped into/ focused on my ability to evolve from it. I was a lot more attuned to my inner self, and that was certainly a mutually beneficial relationship to cultivate. On the good days, I am able to grow and change while honouring my feelings, I am able to better negotiate with my own self, without taking myself too seriously. On other days, I am able to be a little more patient with myself.

In the metaphor of being naked, I was now a lot more comfortable in my skin. When I liked my “body”, I became a lot more patient also about the muffin tops and blemishes and the things I didn’t like about it. Choosing to be vulnerable did not mean suddenly liking all of these parts. When I stopped trying to cover them up though, it actually pushed me to work on it harder without shaming myself (as much) for it. Growth mindset ftw? When I felt “unfit”, with hiding no longer an option, I had to get running and get fitter, while being comfortable with whatever shape the body took in the process. Sometimes that took longer than I’d like, sometimes it didn’t produce the results I wanted – and that was all okay. I was just clay that could continue to be shaped.

In other words, I was now able to surrender and claim more agency at the same time, and that made a massive difference to the sense of security I felt.

(2) I began “collaborating with life”

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

That sense of security in my capability to deal with things along with the agency to do so empowered me to deal with things better and to grow through them. In weird ways, it centered me, shifting my center of gravity more within me. I became more sensitive to stimuli, willing to receive, while feeling a little more confident in my ability to deal with things when they went wrong. As I took on more agency in what actions I took and how I responded to the consequences, I was (better) able to surrender to the things that weren’t in my control. As my friend, Devin Karbowicz, beautifully stated, this kind of active surrender is a way of “collaborating with life” without micromanaging it. And something about that is deeply humbling!

(3) It changed my relationship with the world

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Illustration: Polly Nor

When I became a little more secure in myself, a lot more accepting of my flaws and boundaries, I was also able to accept the flaws and boundaries in others more compassionately. It shifted my focus to my locus of control. Now that I was channeling more energy into the shaping of the clay underneath the filters and enjoying that process, I was no longer walking into relationships afraid of what happens when they see the clay, when they mould it. I was now seeing relationships as spaces for growth, and somehow that made me feel less burdened by them. I was a lot less afraid of being hurt – I would still be saddened by things, but I was now a little more aware to not mix that with my insecurities and sense of worth. I was no longer reduced by the sadness (or all the other emotions).

This made it easier for me to let people in as co-conspirators in this process of moulding and growing, while that also somehow made them trust me more and let me in, helping them in their process. Relationships with growth at the core of it have been a lot more fulfilling, and I am a lot less afraid.

The (*)

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Illustration: Mari Andrew

Let me end by saying this: Just in case this makes me sound sorted, I am not. I often forget this. Sometimes, I shelter myself under a lot of filters. Some days, being vulnerable is harder than I remember. Some days, I am still convinced this is a bad idea. There are several days when my internal compass is too muddled, too overwhelmed, too impatient, and I just need a little bit of makeup/ validation/ extra assurance/ protection. But on the days that I have managed to remember to be vulnerable, I have been astounded by how much space it makes for me to grow.

I don’t know if the things I experienced are universal. But I do think, based on my experience as well as the stuff I have read, that there is some merit to trying this out. If you are interested in trying this out, I compiled some ideas for where you could start in this blog post. It includes list-making, flowcharts of questions and things you can read to learn more.

Meanwhile, would love to hear your thoughts!

Jayati Doshi
3rd Oct, 2018.

Finding my feminine in my feminism.

This past year, I have been growing into my feminism, and being comfortable as it grows to become a much more prominent part of me.

This past year, I am re-discovering what being feminine means to me. It isn’t the yin to your yang, and it certainly isn’t the dainty and delicate version of soft. I am re-claiming what “soft” means to me. For years, I have passionately pushed back against the term “soft”-skills because of all the connotations it has carried about being feminine, and thus something not as serious, and somehow lower on the hierarchy of skills. I am learning instead to find the fierce, passionate, vulnerable, confident version of “soft”, and nourish that powerful kind of feminine as a strength instead.

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This past year, I have suddenly become acutely aware of the “masculine” language around me, which has so long been my lens to see the world. I find myself wary of the misleading masculine rhetoric that I seem to have imbibed through the years, and disappointed with how much mediocrity I was taught to accept and admire from powerful charming men through the years through that lens. I am learning to hold the men I admire and love to higher standards, and not feeling guilty about it. I am reminding myself to allow my non-male heroes more leeway to falter sometimes, as I have with the men.

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This year, I am learning about a leadership that is ferociously feminine, and learning to practice this kind of a leadership that enables, and take responsibility for that power without the hierarchies and designated positions that I seem to have been taught are essential in this “tough macho world”. I am resisting that conditioned voice that constantly measures my own styles against the inherently masculine standards I have inherited. I am allowing myself the opportunity to live my version of feminine as I carve my way into the world instead.

 

I am angry, I am grieving, I am frustrated, and I am allowing myself to feel those things without judging. I have been raised to glorify silence as graciousness, and I am learning to find grace in my voice instead. I am remembering that there is a zero between the positive and the negative, while also becoming aware when my “rational objectivity” is a way of masking my complicity, and finding courage to speak up then. I am learning not to mistake assertiveness for aggression, and resisting the politeness that I have used as an excuse for my fear of confrontation. While at it, I am searching for forgiveness, kindness, compassion and love – things I stand for – amidst it all, without compromising on accountability and responsibility I have come to expect.

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This year, I am growing into my femininity, and learning to embrace all forms it takes. Sometimes I will be wrong, sometimes I will make mistakes and sometimes I will falter into my old habits. Sometimes this will seem too loud, and often I would have to keep working on unlearning all the images and standards I have been taught and finding new ones for reference. This Women’s day, despite all my skepticism about it, I am reminding myself to allow for the space to blossom and learn and evolve through all of that.

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Jayati Doshi
8th March, 2018. 3:30pm.

How to have better (and meaningful) conversations.

One of the questions I get asked most commonly when I talk about my work is “how do you get people to tell you all these intimate stories of their lives?”. Umm, I don’t really know. I don’t have a strategy. I just love talking to people and have been doing this for really long, so I hadn’t really formally thought about it. Then recently, I found myself reading and listening about conversations, trying to learn from the best conversationists I know, and analysing what I do, realising that there were indeed some very specific steps I had followed that worked.

Now, I am by no means an expert, but over the years with conversations being integral to the work I do, I have come to develop some of these skills and they have been immensely useful – the conversations I have had have inspired me, brought me jobs, taught me so much of what I know, and given me a strange kind of robust support system, one that involves intimate friendships that I can count on as also a whole world full of strangers to learn from. Conversations have seen me through my worst times and humbled me through my best. I have found belonging in the world through these conversations. Which is why, I thought I would put down some notes of what I learnt about meaningful conversations while interacting with strangers as my day job. Kio Stark, who talks about stranger interactions, describes this pleasure of conversations beautifully: “This is almost poetic. These were really profound experiences. They were unexpected pleasures. They were genuine emotional connections. They were liberating moments”.

So, I wanted to write down what I learnt, also as an invite for people to experience the joys of it.

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Before I get started, let me add two qualifiers.
(1) No, I am not fully an extrovert (if we were to at all conform to that dichotomy). I love people, and I get a lot of my energy from talking to people, can open up to anyone, but I am also terrified of large gatherings and large group conversations and will usually occupy an observatory corner spot when I do attend those, love spending conspicuous long amounts of time alone and preferably even away from the internet and cannot have small talk to save my life (no seriously, if you put a gun by my head and told me to have small talk or you will kill me, I will die). The point being, this isn’t an extrovert or introvert-oriented list.
(2) As many stories I have of the most fantastic conversations, I have also messed up more times that I would like to admit, in more ways that I fully comprehend, and have my own share of dramatically embarrassing moments. I shall spare you the details, but this list also encompasses the lessons I have learnt after.

Anyway. Without further ado, here is a seven-point non-preachy checklist for having better, more meaningful conversations, with about anyone:

  1. Do your homework – get your foundation right

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” – Matt Kahn

You are “people”. You cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation with someone else if you have never had one with yourself. The best conversations have elements of wholeness, of thoughts and opinions that are connected to beliefs and values, and by extension, to feelings and emotions. One cannot respond authentically to a story about sadness and hurt, for example, if one has no idea how it feels to experience sadness and hurt. You don’t have to have gone through what someone has gone through (and you probably never will) – but the language of emotions can become a shared vocabulary only when one can empathise with what that root feeling is.

And it is not just about responding to emotions. For someone to go to deep places within themselves in conversations, it is important to create a shared safe space where that is okay – and if you are hesitant about those spaces in your life, or if you have never gone there on your own, people know, and that will almost always block off deeper conversations.

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Let me take a moment to clarify what I mean by “deep”. I do not mean the deep dark secret places where all the TMI is stored. I mean more of the things that people hold slightly more intimately, not just in the forms of their stories, but also their perspectives; aka the places where connection happens. These places might sometimes not be as brightly lit or as happy as one would like and might indeed often have stories that are slightly hard to respond to, but in my experience, the best wisdom I have found in conversations, the parts that I have carried with me – they all come from there. And if you have never sat in those places in your own hearts, you will probably not be able to be comfortable in someone else’s deeper places.

This metaphor (also a result of a beautiful conversation) explains this beautifully: you cannot build a strong house on the surface. You are going to need a strong foundation to build a strong house. And that foundation requires some digging. If you have never got your hands dirty, that digging is going to be way harder for you.

We know this in many ways. You know how we often say “there was something about her that made me want to talk to her”? I made a list of people I would put in that  category and had conversations with them about this. And one thing struck out – they all really did inculcate those traits. Maybe they didn’t start off that way all the time, but genuine interest in someone else’s life, some measure of curiosity, a certain amount of positivity and cheer, a definite kindness – these are all things that they had consciously worked to build within themselves, and that showed. I am sure there are ways of faking this that I don’t know of, but here’s my philosophy – if I can actually be positive and kind and curious with a little bit of effort, wouldn’t that make more sense than constantly putting in the effort in pretending to be so?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Plus, in just more practical terms, this self-work is also a good way to know what works well for you, and what doesn’t, what your triggers are – and allows you to be more alert about them in the conversations.

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2. Practice good conversations

While it is completely possible to have incredible conversations by accident, it can also definitely be induced by a little effort. If you have never before had a great meaningful conversation, you wouldn’t know one when you see one. If you have never shared a deep conversation, when you have one, chances are, you might get inundated. Or let me put it this way – if you have had one of those before, you will be able to respond much better when you have one in the future.

And this is where friends come in – gather your friends, bring out your favourite drinks (and maybe a cupcake) and talk. Really talk. Ask the stupid questions. Ask the questions that came up when you tried digging on your own. Ask the questions that you always thought you should know the answers to, but aren’t fully sure. That’s where the best conversations lie. And having them with people you share some history with are the best ways to learn about the dos and don’ts of navigating these.

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Saudade (the love project) started like that. I was heartbroken in more ways than one, and the more I tried to deal with it, the more convinced I was that (a) everyone else knew some thing that I had completely missed the memo of, and (b) somehow the way I felt things was an aberration. So, trained in research methods, I decided to find out. I began to ask my friends questions like “when you say you feel hurt, what exactly does that feel like for you?” or “do you ever feel like you are hurt and that feels crappy and you want to just really wallow inside your damn warm blanket, but you also are feeling worse because you don’t want to be a victim and so you would much rather pretend like you weren’t hurt, but that only makes you more cranky” (btw, almost everyone said yes). Apart from the fact that I have absolutely fantastic friends who played along and answered my questions, I think these conversations allowed us a sneak peak into each others’ shoes in ways that we hadn’t had access to before, while at the same time giving words to our experiences. With the unintended outcome being that it helped us understand ourselves as well as the world better.

I like to think of this process as building a database – next time someone said they were hurt, I not only understood better what it means by hurt, but also have a vocabulary/ image/ context outside of myself that allows me to respond to them better because I get that a little bit more. But there was also a more nuanced outcome that came from this conversation – a subtle sense of solidarity that gets formed when you know that someone else also hurts in ways that are similar if not the same as you; a sense of comfort that comes from knowing that what we feel is slightly more normal and universal than we care we remember.

3. Prepare

As a student of theatre, I am professionally trained to improvise. And thus for the longest time, I was way too comfortable in my ability to “wing it”. I mean, I know my crap, I know how to use it and how to turn things around, what can go wrong, right?
Then one day, without intending to, I told a whole room full of people I admired, that I essentially had no idea what I was doing in my life and thus single (this is a very mellow version of what really happened). I have had a whole variety of embarrassing moments, but this one really hit me. After I got out, I dissected this: all I was expected to do was introduce myself with a very little twist in the question – how hard should that be? I introduce myself to people all the time! But I had been having a few bad days, I was tense about something, and at that point all of that was on my mind. So, in moment of panic for being put on the spot, that was the first thing my brain found. Now, I am sure most people’s brains probably do not have the same sadistic sense of humour that mine does (it is abnormally adept at always finding the most awkward thing to say with much panache), but since then I have been way more intentional about what I have most accessible in my head before I go to meet someone. And that has made a world of a difference.

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As far as possible, I try to keep at least a 30-40 min recess before and after I meet someone and use that time to “get into the zone”. I schedule a lot more time before I go for a professional meeting, but even generally I’d try to keep at least some space to gather my thoughts. It not only makes sure that I can make the most of the meeting, but also makes it possible for me to be 100% present at every meeting. When in a professional meeting, I actually have a standard set of questions that I make notes on: (a) what do I know about this person – not just in terms of what they do, but also how they think, (b) what they care about, (c) what do I know about those topics, (d) what do I want to know about those topics, and (e) what questions I have for them. I also often actually practice the introductions, or at least think about what aspect of myself I am going to highlight in the conversation, like making sure I have revised what I know about that experience. I know this sounds really strange, I mean, duh, I know everything there is to know about me. But, at least I have found it to be immensely useful to make this information readily accessible in my brain – it frees up brainspace for me to actually process what the person is saying and making all the relevant things I “know” only a few connections away from being found.

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I am a lot less organised when I meet someone for a more casual conversation, but I still take the time to just gather my thoughts – What’s on my mind? What am I looking to get out of this? How am I feeling? Taking the time to breathe. To neatly shelf out all the other thoughts that are boggling me. to ensure that I am fully present in that conversation and not trying to process something else there. It seems like an obvious thing, but at least for me, simply being intentional about it has been game-changing. It not only prevents me from doing something stupid, but also allows me the mental and emotional space to really take in whatever it is that I get in that conversation. And just generally, I think rituals help, particularly on bad days when that state of mind is harder to come by.

4. Ask good questions

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This is the simplest one to learn, and you will probably find much better resources out there on how to do this better. The thumb rules I have with my questions (some of them are on the list because I have messed this up when I didn’t follow them) are:

  • Don’t ask what you could find on Google. Or, as a friend once told me, don’t ask because you are too lazy to find those answers on your own.
  • Open-ended questions. Always. Not just in how they are framed, but mostly just making sure that the other person always has the space to explain, that this doesn’t feel like either a a job interview or a trial. When in doubt, a “why do you think” and “what do you mean by that” are the safest options.
  • Don’t ask if you are not willing to really hear the answers or if you aren’t ready to hear with an open-mind.
  • When I go with a particular end in mind, I always let the other person know that in advance or at least in the beginning of the conversation, and give context to make sure they know why I am asking. This rule is also helpful when someone else has initiated a conversation with me – it helps the conversation feel like a mutually beneficial one rather than an interrogation, because the motive is consensual and no one has anything to prove.

5. Listen. Pay attention. Be present.

Probably the most overstated advice when it comes to conversations. With good reason.

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The tips for this are classic, so I won’t get into it. But here’s something I know for sure: people know when you aren’t listening. They know when you aren’t present in that conversation. When you are not paying attention. Or when you are faking any of it. I am sure there are microexpressions and subtle cues that go into this, but regardless of how, people always know. And nothing pisses people off more. And rightly so! Almost none of us, given how we fill our calendars, have extra time lying around to spare. So if someone makes the effort to give you time and effort, it is basic manners to do all of this.

Everyone does this differently, so figure out what works for you and how you can get yourself to listen, but there is tremendous merit to doing that. But this shouldn’t be a trick, this absolutely needs to be genuine. There is nothing more condescending than someone who pretends to listen but isn’t really. Celeste Headlee, who gives this absolutely brilliant TED talk about having better conversations, says this best: “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention”.

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6. Invite them into sense-making

This is the one tip you don’t get very often (although the same sentiment is often brought up differently in many places), but in my experience, it is mostly this that gets people to open up. Like I have said elsewhere, vulnerability is different for different people – not just in how vulnerable they are willing to be, but also what vulnerability looks like for them. Some people would be perfectly okay sharing a personal anecdote, but won’t tell you how they feel. Some would never tell you what they really think of something. Whereas some others might tell you the lessons they have learnt from their experiences, but never share the experiences.

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That being said, one of the most vulnerable things to do is to make sense of something with someone, because that encompasses all the forms of vulnerability – it requires you to accept that something doesn’t make sense to you while also allows someone else to being a part of that process, and thus, affecting you. Which is why, I have found that inviting someone to make sense of something is perhaps the most profound way to show that you are vulnerable, while allowing the other person to decide how and how much they would like to be vulnerable. They might decide to do so through their experiences or opinions or questions of their own.

At the same time though, this is also the easiest way to equalise the power in a conversation. Sure, there will always be a dynamic of slight inequality, which might have to do with experience, knowledge, age, stature or sometimes even extroversion and introversion. But, regardless of what it is in the beginning, a shared sense-making not just equalises it to a large extent by making space for that conversation to be useful for everyone involved. All of us have some questions about life, none of us have figured everything out, yet all of us know a little bit about something – inviting someone into sense-making establishes all of that as context, and builds meaning into the conversation. But when you open up the space to do this, it is the one absolute surefire way to have a fantastic conversation that people remember.

The way I usually frame this in a conversation is:
<This> is what I have been thinking about (with a line or two about why I have been thinking about it, usually involving a concrete short anecdote that allows for empathy, and why my own prep about making my thoughts accessible helps),
<This> is why I am talking to you about it (this is where the “what does the other person care about” homework comes handy),
And then opening up the space for them to comment with “what do you think about it?”.

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Almost always, the response to that includes them telling you what they know, and then also framing open-ended questions they might have – and that makes a continued conversation so much easier! Plus, in my own romantic way, I like to think that doing this allows me to connect the dots between the people I meet and the people they have known, while also learning more about the world in the process. I believe that this has not only made my conversations more meaningful and how I learnt so much of what I know through them, but has also brought me much much more belonging into the world. Just something about this process makes it easy to walk around with a curiosity mindset, to constantly learn, and while doing that, contribute to a collective sense-making about the strange world we live in, while also opening up possibilities in places and ways we did not know existed.  Also, I make notes about this, which are systematically organised and thus accessible (I use the time after a meeting to do this, or get back to it at the end of the day).

7. Follow up

Again, this part is obvious – write a thank you note, send them the resources you say you would send, and keep writing to them once in a while to stay in their memories.

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Here’s how I learnt to do it better: I write a genuine thank you note, also bringing in little snippets (a line or two) about what I learnt in that conversation – this not only helps me demonstrate that I listened and makes them feel good about themselves (and everyone keeps an email/ message that makes them feel good about themselves), but gives them a concrete context to remember me by. This context I have found super useful in keeping in touch: Say I learnt a really interesting perspective or metaphor for an issue from person A, and I use it in conversation with person B – not only does it make person B trust me more because they now know that I actually remember and listen and quote other people, but also becomes a good reason for me to write to person A and say “I was telling someone about what you said, and they said this, and I thought of you and would like you to know”, opening up more space for conversations. Moreover, this context also becomes a reason they get in touch with me – I often receive messages and emails from people because they were reminded of something I said, and a conversation thus ensues. And, of course, while doing that, I only learn more in the process. It’s a win-win-win.

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Mostly though…

(and you might already know this), conversations often do go wrong. All of us have some of those stories to share. I believe strongly that the solution to that isn’t less conversation, but more, while learning through it. To be able to laugh at that and learn from that, cliche as that sounds. At the end of the day, it is all about getting better, right? (Without, perhaps, taking ourselves too seriously!)

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Hope that helps! Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this, and/or how it goes when they do try it out!

Many good conversations to you,
jayati

I like big “ands”, and I cannot lie.

“You drive really well for a girl”. Each time someone says that to me, which is unfortunately more often than I’d like, my brain responds with a massive ugh, which I have learnt to translate into a more “girl-like” mumble-sigh that could be taken for a thank-you on the outside.
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Because that, despite probably being intended to be one, is not a compliment. What it is is a pseudo-polite way of saying, as a girl I am not expected to drive well, and by that benchmark, I performed well. It’s like telling someone they are a brilliant human being for not killing anyone – it is important, but there is a lot more to being a great human that we can expect from them.

 

Anyhow. What you think about my driving skills doesn’t bother me too much because I don’t really care about what you assume of my capabilities (or those of my gender) in that realm.

 

However, there are several such “but” statements that do cause harm. Statements that frame me into narratives that I confine my being in. Statements regarding identities I don’t have a choice about. We know these far too well. “You have great communication skills for a man”. “You are too feminine to be queer”. “You have done rather well for yourself as a person of colour”. They cause harm because of the boundaries they draw around one’s experiences – not the healthy boundaries that delineate spaces of respect, but the kind that confine and cage one’s spaces for exploration. Boundaries contained in that clause of omit for politeness – “As a man, you aren’t supposed to communicate well, but, look at you (being so un-masculine (or worse, feminine))!”. When we use “but” to contextualise someone’s identities vis-a-vis their reality, and mark their realities to be an exception, we bound them within the assumptions that we make about certain parts of their identity. Assumptions that come with unsaid and just as harmful assumptions that are based on the ideas of “normal” we don’t bother to challenge. The assumption about men inherently not being good communicators not only promotes raising of men without teaching them how to communicate well (because that isn’t an expectation placed) but also puts a judgment on communication being something that women do and want, and create space for several jokes around that, eventually setting an unconscious bias that communicating is something to be mocked, women do it (and hence can be mocked), slowly evolving also into several men not wanting to because it is “not masculine enough”.
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Now, I get that assumptions have a functional use. Given how much needs to be done in a day in terms of all the interaction and navigation, it is definitely easier to function on the basis of assumptions. Social scientists call them heuristics  They save time. It’s like everyone (except artists, who are bad at math of course) know that Pythagoras theorem means  a^{2}+b^{2}=c^{2}, and that it alludes to a right angle triangle, and all the many assumptions about right triangle that come with it. So, you say Pythagoras theorem, and suddenly everyone is on the same page. But people, and their beliefs and personalities do not fit fully into formulas  and not every triangle is a right angle triangle.

 

Let’s take this example. When I tell people I study love, people assume that I care a lot about love, and by extension, people and relationships. The most immediate response is being labeled versions of “love-girl”, or being asked if I am a “love-guru”. By itself, that isn’t necessarily bad, or even untrue, but inherent to those responses are the assumptions people make about me being romantic/ cheesy/ corny/ touchy-feely, etc. A little bit like the Google-search version pasted below, no?
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Now, think about what that assumption does to how I am perceived when I go on dates. Or worse, in professional settings when I mention this as a project. See why it could be a problem?

 

I have, obviously, learnt to deal with it. I change the way I describe the work I do, such that I highlight the academic nature of this, throwing in a lot of research-based jargon, like “in-depth interviews” and “literature reviews” particularly when putting this into my cover letters. I have learnt to use the question “so, what did you learn about love” as an opportunity to establish the kind of content that I deal with, making sure it sounds “smart”. And at the same time, my PR-strategy-trained friends have taught me to embrace the curiosity to my benefit. Plus, it makes for a great ice-breaker in otherwise annoying networking events.

 

That being said, I am also very aware that this is the image that people unconsciously form of me in the first few seconds of meeting me, and a lot of the next few minutes is affirming or contesting this image. They can’t help it. It’s the way our brain works – the common sense part of semantics/ psychology/ social sciences.

 

So, say as a child, when your mum first pointed out to a four-legged furry animal and called it “dog”, you assumed all the four-legged furry animals were dogs. As you grew up, and the categories in your brain became more refined, you learnt that four-legged animals could also be cats and cows and horses and tigers, that not all of them were furry, and you started to distinguish between them. Slowly you learnt to tell a Labrador from a Golden Retriever and a Pug. Along with that, depending on what your relationships with the dogs around you were, you started attaching emotions to a dog. If you say had a pet that you loved playing with, your brain would associate security and joy with it. If you were bitten by a dog and had to get painful injections after that, your association with dogs would be different. Nevertheless, these associations and assumptions have evolutionary purpose. They help you navigate. They help you decide quickly how to respond to dogs. Were they indeed dangerous, your brain being trained to respond to it with fear might have even saved your life.
dogOur assumptions about people come to form the same way. They are based on our experiences and the experiences we inherit through what we are taught – from the people we learn from like our families, schools and communities, the kind of experiences we consume, like the movies we watch and books we read… They are what create our version of the world. The details in the reality as we experience it.

 

However, that’s also exactly why it gets tricky – our experiences and reality are, in turn, shaped by these assumptions. The way you respond to the next dog would be based on what you have felt about it all this while. If you were the kind who hates dogs because you have seen your younger brother get bit by them, you might not let even the most friendliest dogs near you.

 

But maybe, say after you grew up a little, you went to your friend’s house and she had a pet dog. A furry friendly huggable playful jolly old Marley. You decide to open up your mind a little bit, and let Marley smell you while your friend ensures that he is leashed. You realise its not that scary. A few times of doing that, you may even find yourself playing with Marley, and enjoying yourself. You still hate dogs, but Marley is adorable. Congratulations! You just opened yourself up to a little more variety of experiences by adding that layer of complexity to your assumptions about dogs.

 

Now, imagine you let this crevice in your well-formed assumptions expand. Suddenly, there is space for you to even love dogs. Suddenly, while it is possible that you still are a tad bit afraid of dogs because one bit your younger brother, it is also possible for you to experience the joy of playing with (some) dogs and to believe that not all dogs are scary. You suddenly realise the possibility of those multiple realities to co-exist. And with it expands your repertoire of what’s possible.
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 We all know this. And most of us are rather open-minded to such possibilities too. I thought of myself as someone like that, until one day I heard myself say it nonchalantly. It was after a negotiations class where we had just practiced using “and” instead of “but”. In a casual conversation that evening, I told a friend he was “rather interesting for a consultant”. Crap, I had just done what I hated when other people did to me. In the days to come, I started hearing more times when I inadvertently spoke like that. I was suddenly aware of how much I was restricting my reality through these assumptions I carried – for example, I immediately shifted to small talk when I heard someone was a consultant, because in my experience, most of those that I had met had been boring. As as result though, I had closed off the opportunity to have an interesting conversation with them. It had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Replacing the “but” with an “and” though allowed me to open up the possibilities – reminded me that he was a consultant, and a lot of his experiences were indeed shaped by that, but he also had several other experiences at the same time, which I didn’t give him the space to explore by putting him into this box. His reality was larger than that one descriptor, but that descriptor was all that I had been seeing this whole time.

 

Just making that one little change in my vocabulary was immensely transformative. Not just because it allowed me to have better conversations with consultants, but I didn’t have to wait to have an interesting conversation with one to believe in the possibility of consultants being interesting deeper people. They weren’t always, to be fair, but more often than not, they did have a lot of interesting things to say when I was willing to listen. The “and” opened up the curiosity to find out all the things they also were, rather than the things they had to prove to be despite being a consultant. It became an opening for better conversations in itself, allowing the space for more stories to emerge. While enlarging the boundaries of my own reality of what I expected that individual experience to be. It made it possible, in its own way, for some of my favourite people to be these consultants, who I might have previously thought I couldn’t get along with.

 

This is particularly poignant in the context of the aspects of our identities that we cannot change, and/or the parts that are visible. I can rephrase the identity of “love-girl” by changing how I define it, but I cannot do that about my gender, ethnicity, or other aspects of my identity that are more “factual”. The “and”, in that case, becomes particularly more important, because it allows for choice – the opportunities to be more than the “should be this” and “supposed to be that” that our identity-based assumptions expect of this. It allows me the opportunity to be a good driver, to say the least.

 

The “and” also changed how I explained myself. I am a lot less anxious about introducing my love-project. I have learnt to embrace the parts to me that I tried to hide because I was afraid of the assumptions they carried. I let myself be all those “ands” rather than restrict myself with the “buts”. And that has suddenly liberated me in more ways I can count. And not because I suck at math – after all, I am a qualitative artistic social-sciences type girl, and I like math now.

 

Jayati Doshi
23rd July, 2017.

The “Real world” assumption.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the edu-documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen already, you absolutely must), a teacher trying out something new in a classroom is having a meeting with some of his students to talk about the new pedagogy he has introduced in class. Pedagogy that is intended help the students “learn” rather than just prepare them to ace tests. Some of the students (mostly the high-performing ones) are hesitant about these new methods he’s brought in. “Is it more important for you to learn or to do well in the tests?”, he asks, cautious hope in his eyes. “Do well in tests,” one student immediately responds. The others chime in almost instantly, agreeing. The look of confusion and concern that he has on his face after that summarises what a lot of us feel about our education system.

It got me to think about my own early experiences as a student. I wasn’t a bad student. I got decent grades, my teachers would call me a sincere student. Yet, despite the fact that I loved learning, studying (for exams – which I found out later wasn’t necessarily the same as learning) was hard. Even after I managed to find healthier educational opportunities, the same struggles followed me into the real world. My questions, stemming out of genuine curiosity, were often met with well-intentioned advice of “don’t complicate your life too much”.

In the past year, being encouraged to “complexify” my life, I have come to think about how we are taught about the “real world”. When a wiser person tells us there’s a certain way the real world works and certain ways that it doesn’t, our learnt default response is to believe in that, because experience is true, and if that were really how the “real world”- which is in any case too overwhelmingly massive and intricate for one person to fully understand – works, we don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of.

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Our education system, I have come to believe, is one such system that is formed around such assumptions about what the real world need and values. Our schools and colleges work so hard to prepare us to do well in a system that we all know is messed up. Whether or not they succeed in doing even that is a whole other conversation.

These assumptions have been around for a while, and with history. At the risk of hyper-simplifying its nuances, the well-known story goes mostly like this:

Years ago, with the Industrial Revolution showing us dreams of a fancy new society, an era of moving from our agrarian/ artisan culture to that of professionalism, our metrics for measuring success changed. We now thought of productivity through the lens of efficiency – how much more can you produce in a shorter period of time, how fewer mistakes can you make while doing that, and can you be trusted to be consistently as accurate – measures that we inherited from the machines we created. Mass-production of goods led to a culture of mass-production of people and their skills – what we (currently) know as our educational system centered around exams and standardised tests. What was meant to measure learning became what learning focused towards. Our systems came to be designed so that we would memorise to prove our competencies – static knowledge of facts and procedures to do well in the industrialised marketplace, with rights and wrongs to be handed down by teachers who are considered authority. In industries, the employee was individually involved in a very small part of making the product, was easily replaceable and was thus supposed to be detached from the product – and slowly, these values came to also structure the qualities we hold as valuable in people. Values that are represented in our education system. Certainty, consistency, order and uniformity. Words that sound like music to the industrial companies.

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Of course, there are several ways that this is changing with the advent of the Internet era; there is much that the Googles of the world are changing in the work marketplace and there are several schools, colleges and non-institutional settings that are doing phenomenal work to change that. Yet, we are largely still functioning in the same way; these versions of learning are being passed on across generations, setting the boundaries of what we call success even if we decide to challenge the ways we learn/ work for it. The square pegs-round hole analogy has in my head always been about cookies – the cookie boxes are round, so all our cookies need to be cut with round cookie-cutters, and the square ones need to be chipped off the edges to fit the boxes. Individuality then gets restricted to how many colours you can make these round cookies in, which is easier than changing the shape of the boxes to fit all kinds of cookies, including the ones that don’t have a perfect shape. Add to that the very real problems of lack of equal access and resources, and we have a nice little vicious cycle, a whole machine of faulty systemic gears. A cycle that continues to perpetuate, because those who come into power, very often if not always (thank god!), do so because of this system, and by the time they get power, might not have sufficient motivation and credibility to really change it as substantially as it deserves to be.

There are several people asking questions about this and finding fascinating ways to shift these gears – a task that, as you can well imagine, is rather tricky given that you need to change multiple gears while the machine is still in motion. But here’s the question that keeps me up at night – what can I, as an individual, subject to the risks that come with not “following this system”, do to change it?

Although far from having an answer, I do have a hypothesis that I am testing out right now. (I must state at this point that I fully recognise the privilege that underlies my ability to say this – the privilege that comes from having encouraging teachers, professional mentors, like-minded peers and supportive family along with access to opportunities that allows me to venture on this experiment). It was a thought that was planted in my head by a very enthusiastic Alfie Kohn dancing around our classroom stage, as he spoke about the “BGUTI culture” i.e. the “Better Get Used To It” culture that we are slowly hammered into. The culture of being told “that’s how the real world works, better get used to it” every time we question something that does not make sense. The culture where we are told that questioning and challenging and changing are privileges reserved for the “already successful” club, and we need to be successful within the system before we start to change it. A culture of keeping our head down, take only calculated risks, and continuing to believe that it is only a dog-eats-dog world out there, and the only way to survive it is to learn to be a part of it.  I have no credibility to say that that is not true. I am just not sure that that is the only truth.

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I have been wondering about the versions of the “real world” that we come to believe as true, and that has made me conscious of what my own versions are that I use to build my life in, and what I pass on and contribute to through the choices I make.  Trying out what happens when I ask good questions, questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, when something doesn’t make sense to me. Not rebelling, not challenging blindly, not being idealistic/ unrealistic,  but questioning to understand, so I can know why and how I make choices, and thus make better ones.

So far, it’s served me well. It’s opened up opportunities and space for conversations. Conversations like the one I had with one of my professors when I spoke to him about my learning in his class. What I wanted to gain from that class was different from what the class’ learning goals were – and having a conversation asking him what his learning goals were and why, and defining the same for my goals, led to him helping me get to my goal, so long as I respected the criteria of the class in the assignments I submitted. This discussion itself brought to the forefront the learning that was happening from the class and gave me better focus, rather than the bitterness that I had begun to develop. Conversations like the ones I have with new people I meet when we realise that we are mutually baffled with small talk, and thus don’t need to work so hard at trying to do that at all – this one in fact has made parties so much more bearable for me. It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found

It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found good reason why things worked the way they did rather than the way I thought they should – and all of this allowed me to contribute better. There have been several days that not asking felt a lot more convenient and comfortable. Yet, the times that I did muster up the courage to ask questions, I have felt more empowered, as though I had more information on the map that I navigated through my world. I felt more a part of how things worked, than just an object to assumptions of it. It’s opened up space for more possibilities, opening me up from the binds of only one version of them. Kinda like the time someone said, wait a second, why did you say women can’t have the right to vote again?

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I would like to invite you to try your own adventure of curiosity with some faith in the good in this world. Next time you find yourself craving into believing that the real world works in a certain way only, maybe stop and ask what proof you have of that, and if there are other possibilities you might imagine. Maybe, if you feel particularly daring, seek out and test out some of those possibilities. For the few times that they work out, let people know those possibilities can happen. And maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to put those possibilities together and create better versions of the “real world” we live in. If you do embark on this journey, I would love to know about what you learn so that I can add it to my repertoire of “tested assumptions of the real world”.

Jayati Doshi
July 15, 2017. 10.00 am

Also on Medium: https://medium.com/@jayatidoshi/the-real-world-assumption-46605357f2c2