Sunday, September 23, 2012

Excellence is about making numerous choices daily

Many self-help popular books and counsellors advocate that excellence is about getting big macro choices right, such as choice of right discipline after 10th, or the right college to graduate, or right job after graduation, or even the right partner to marry. Because of this mistaken belief, students and their parents spend considerable time in deciding what to do after 10th class ! But excellence is not about doing one thing right; it is about doing things right daily ( at least most of them).

In other words, Excellence is a habit. It is not a mindset, or a one-time skill. Taking one decision right does not guarantee excellence. Taking the decision to do 'engineering', for instance, does not guarantee any excellence in engineering, until you do numerous small things right while finishing your high school till 10th class. For instance, if you have decided that your potential strength is physics, one of a critical subject in Engineering, you have to find methods and ideas that will daily help you increase your strength in physics. Your strength is not going to increase by understanding one chapter right, or passing one exam of physics with good marks. Your strength in physics will increase only if you make most of your micro choices - of doing well in physics -  right.To excel in life, one has to practice the habit of excellence consistently with conscious effort.

Because excelling is a habit, you have to practice it again and again consciously. Like driving habit, excelling habit has three characteristics. Firstly, even though you have learnt driving, you still have to drive the car every time with focus and attention. You cannot just put down your guard and hope the car will be driven automatically. Once you learn driving till a threshold level, you may require less conscious effort, but you still require some effort. Similarly, excelling habit, even if you learnt it once, has to be practiced again and again in every situation. Secondly, when the situation changes, you have to re-learn the habit again. For instance, if you have to drive in Ghats, you have to learn driving again. Thirdly, a contextual situation may  require a very different kind of similar skill. In such situation relearning the same habit takes lot of practice and time. For instance, if you want to enter the competition of car-racing, you may have to unlearn some of the practices useful in city driving, and practice new way of driving. Excelling habits, even when they look similar, require quite an amount of relearning for each situation.

So how can you develop this excelling habit to achieve anything meaningful?

1. Excelling is making micro choices daily (again and again) to gain knowledge

Many students assume that excelling is about making one right choice - Engineering, medical, arts, or any other discipline - after 10th class. Unfortunately, it is just the first step. If you do not do the micro-work, nothing will save you.

When you, for instance, choose to use Physics Olympiad to deepen your knowledge of engineering, you have to make numerous micro choices consequently : how to study every day for olympiad despite the school schedule, where to find other students who are also working for physics olympiad, how to locate teachers who will teach you the depth of physics, how to find websites that will help you learn some concept of physics faster, and where to meet older students who had gone to Olympiad and so on. These micro choices ultimately determine if your macro decision of doing engineering will help you excel or not.

2. Excelling is using the 'forced situations' in your life to grow mentally

We do not have choices in many situations. We are, on the contrary, forced into situations. Forced situations push us back into the corner and make us take a stand that primarily determine our mental growth. Remember the definition of mental growth: Mental growth is our ability to see as-is reality without any bias.  For instance,  we are born into a particular type of family, a specific kind of town or city, and in a specific culture or community. All these forced 'situations' bias us unknowingly. Our ability to be aware of these biases and utilise them in our life ( either as crisis or as opportunities) determine our mental growth.With mental growth, we develop qualities like patience, concentration, persistence and courage which are necessary to complement your intelligence.

3. Excelling is about using every situation to tame the mind beast so that you can take the above two actions with commitment 

Mind has features which are good and ugly. Despite knowing 0.001% of the world ( or even less), it still has to function in this world and help us find our place to grow. This is the power of our mind. But to use this power, Mind is forced to adopt certain practices. For instance, it has to use 'fast and instantaneous'** emotion to take quick decisions without enough information. But one cannot always rely on these 'emotions'. For instance, when we are going to stage to deliver a speech, we have to learn to ignore the discomforting signals of emotion. In short, we have to learn to tame the mind beast : sometimes consciously go against its orders and sometimes follow its powerful orders.

When we use stress, that mind generates to keep us wary of danger signals, to channelise our efforts in studying more, we are taming the mind beast. When we use self-doubt to prepare for the next exam, despite doing well in the current exam, we are taming the mind beast. When we ignore the belief ( mind unconsciously adopts beliefs to help it take decisions with less information) that 'drawing is just a hobby', and decide to pursue career in drawing, we are taming the mind beast. Some self-help gurus advocate the opposite: instead of taming mind beast they tell us to believe that our mind can do anything and everything. But mind, because it is always functioning with very little knowledge about the world, cannot be all-powerful! This strategy therefore fails.


In short excelling, first of all, is a habit. Excellence is not a mantra or rule that can be practiced once in a while. Excelling is habit that has to be practiced daily. You will not learn to excel always. Sometimes you may not succeed in excelling. Excelling is about using daily situations in life to guide your actions and behaviour that slowly and surely enhances your knowledge( strengths) step by step, help you grow mentally by tackling forced situations differently, and above all use every situation to become aware of the mind's beast so that you can tame it . Taming the mind beast is necessary if one has to use the power of mind without falling prey to the mind's unpredictable demons of emotion, stress, belief and self doubt. We may not get right all these choices and decisions. But overall, our averages will improve and help us lay the solid foundation of any excellence.

Do you practice the habit of excellence consistently?

** To know more about mind's fast and instantaneous process, read Noble Prize Winner Daniel Kahnemann's book ' Thinking slow and fast'.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Excelling in life is Not about winning the battle against external odds

Excelling in life is generally seen as winning the battle against external circumstances like poverty, or against competitors, or even against tough situations. But it is none of this; it is about Winning one's battle against oneself. We cannot win the battle against oneself in one go, we have to win this battle one step at a time.

For instance, we make multiple choices in our lives to develop our strengths slowly and steadily. Excelling is about making most of those choices right. But in life, we also encounter 'forced' situations that we cannot choose. We need to use these forced situations and not be at their mercy. And, more than anything else, winning the battle against oneself is winning the battle of mind. It is battling the fear of carrying one's mashal (flag) alone despite others telling us that we could be carrying a wrong flag. Let us explore this further.

Excelling in life is about winning the many 'micro' choices that we take every day to focus on something (or defocus on something else) to develop knowledge in our areas of strengths. When we decide to play, and not study, we are making a choice of which strength to focus. When we decide to study on English, and not maths, we are making a choice of English versus maths. When we decide to see a movie, we are choosing to focus on arts and find meaning in life. When we decide not to ask a question to teacher, even when we have not understood anything about the subject, we are making a choice that directly influences our progress. When we decide to drop from the essay competition, we are making a choice of not choosing the path of writing. When we decide to break away from a studious friend who speaks English well, we are making a choice of learning English in a difficult way.

But excelling in life is not only making choices in 'unforced' situations. Excelling in life is also about using every forced situation (good or bad) that comes in our life in a way that will help us win. We do not always have the liberty to choose situations in life, many a times we are forced into a situation. Winning in forced situations enables us to use these situations to complement our strengths ( be it in English, Maths or Art). Mental growth is using situations to develop qualities such as patience, motivation, confidence, tolerance of different views - that will help you complement your strengths. For instance, excelling in life is about using the forced 'poverty' to motivate yourself , it is about using forced TV/Internet culture to hasten learning instead of just entertainment. Sometimes excelling is about tolerating incompetent teachers to discover your own learning difficulties, while sometimes it is about using difficult social environment to learn the qualities of patience and waiting. Sometimes excelling in life is about encountering death of close family member and learning to use it appreciate the fickleness of life.

Lastly, but more importantly, winning against oneself is winning the battle against mind's hidden demons.  When , despite our knowledge of physics, we fail to score poorly in physics exam, we have to tolerate the mind getting swamped by failure.Winning the battle of mind is learning to battle stress ( that accompanies any uncertain task) even when stress threatens to derail performance. Winning the battle of mind is about avoiding the distractions of environment that threaten to defocus our mind.  Winning the battle of mind is about conserving mental energy during 3 hours of exams so that one can answer all the questions to the best of one's ability. And more importantly, winning the battle of mind is reminding oneself again and again that it is OK to lose a point or even game ( or even match) to win the ultimate battle: the battle of excelling in Life.

In short, excelling in life is about making the right choices in unforced situations to gain knowledge in your strength area as well as using forced situations to grow mentally while battling with the mind's demons that we have not deciphered. As you would realise, this whole battle happens in one's mind and cannot be monitored from outside. It is therefore battle against oneselfFor better understanding, see how Andy Murray won his battle to win the US Open.

Surprisingly, we need only one key to win this battle against oneself. We will learn about that key in the next blog.