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Reflecting on my summer stint in #Paris

My three week stint in Paris draws to an end tomorrow. It’s been a work trip peppered with lots of outings with family, though they did way more sight seeing and touristy activities than me. That’s what they have been here for. As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed having solo time at work. This is a luxury in India, where the work place is a juggling act involving much more than the core components of research like fieldwork, analysis, reading and writing. Much time is spent in project and team management and in attending meetings and conferences too. I enjoy all that buzz as well, so carving out time for more solitary kind of work has been very challenging indeed!

Here in Paris, the work environment has been conducive for solo activity, though I share an office space with two other researchers, both senior to me from whom I am learning a lot through observation and everyday conversations. The solitude has helped me increase my concentration span and somewhat improve my ability to schedule work more realistically. It has also taught me the value of reading beyond my subject, something I have wanted to do for a long time. The importance of embarking on a PhD at this stage in life has come home to me as well, as I interact with academic researchers at various stages of their careers.

For the most part, I find my colleagues here immensely focused and dedicated to their own sliver of research (though not in a restrictive way). PhD students and scholars working on remote Asian and African nations have spent years teaching themselves new languages, delving deep into understanding the cultural traditions and political economy of faraway lands as well as spending vast amounts of time physically experiencing these geographies and cultures. As a relatively new entrant to social science research, I realize my training as an urban planner somewhat limits my attitudes because I tend to focus on solution-oriented approaches without adequately steeping myself in the context. This is a drawback I am determined to address going forward.

Being outside my comfort zone and a change of scenario also helps me reflect on myself in other, more personal ways. My time here has strengthened by belief that life must be a delicate balance of self-confidence and humility. The former in the sense that I imbibe the importance of being myself, not judging myself too harshly, not overthinking everyday decisions and certainly not worrying about appearances or what other folks think of you! This has been a work in progress for the last few years and its got a fillip here in Paris. Humility in the sense of being open to new ideas, really listening through when other people talk, opening out the senses without judgement and leaving the ‘I’ out of as much a possible. To be honest, I have not progressed as much in this because temperamentally I am the talker/do-er/impression-maker type. Stepping back and toning down when I need to is something I am aware of but have not been able to practice as well.

All in all, these reflections form the base for my second stint here in September this year. I will be unaccompanied by family or friends then and will be living alone for a month for perhaps the first time in my life (yes, believe it or not!). During that trip, I intend to catch up on the missed out parts of tourism, the alternate experiences in Paris and also work much more on my journey towards serious and focused research.

Blogging can be truly inane! July 20, 2012

I come to blogging with a heavy baggage of having worked as a content writer for many years. For me, every blog is an article. It is something you plot, construct, fill with detail, refine. It is something you craft, something that makes a point, reflects who you are, etc. Sometimes, I confess, I have written off the top of my head and have slept with the guilt of compromise or worse, the regret of the failure of my imagination. But most times, I enjoy what I write and I think I’ve written something worthy of another’s time.

I am beginning to discover that blogosphere is deliciously and irreverently inane. I am sure others, who like me made the transition from living in the real world to being a partial inhabitant of the virtual world, have felt the same. In the virtual world, things do not need to make sense. Creatures who trawl the net aimlessly enjoy a wide variety of information and writings; intellectual content is not a preference, novelty, freshness, easily digestible, exciting content is the order of the day.

Hence, travel and food blogs, with all the yummy photographs in there, attract a lot of attention. Interestingly, the other category is this one that is random musings about life, the self, what someone did that day….little things that simply have no big picture. Note, I am not looking down on this stuff. It amazes me and impresses me that people can make the stuff in their lives inviting and exciting for other people. I often enjoy the humor and wit on such blogs.

Many of these can be utter nonsense though. I find it hard to appreciate poor language. There are sentences that trail off in dots without making any real beginning, so you cannot possibly conjure an conclusion. I hate those. There is that terribly familiar tone I dislike as well, as if everyone out there is you best pal. I’m not always sure that works. However, it is these blogs that I often cannot comprehend, that get a zillion likes!

Today, I went to the ‘freshly pressed’ pages on wordpress and saw that they had featured a rather nonsensical life-blah sort of blog that had only one entry! One single entry….and it had over 200 responses- comments, likes, whatever. Plus the pat on the back from wordpress. And I thought, ‘Oh!’.

I rest my case. Blogging can be truly inane. I guess inanity is not my talent!


No Big Picture! Hoping the short-term targets will take me through…Jan 18, 2012

I drove home with a friend last evening; we were catching up after a long time. As it happens with people you have known for long, the discussion journeyed from comparing jobs, kids and hobbies to ambition. Something Maneck said during the course of the evening said struck me. He said he wanted to change the world!

Change the world, make a difference, leave a legacy…. Now I haven’t had that kind of grand, sweeping, idealistic thought in a long, long time! Maybe I have succumbed to the humdrum routine of day-to-day living or maybe nirvana has not happened to me yet.

Thinking it through, I realize that every time I have tried to set myself such any long-term goals, it has been a disaster of an exercise. When I set short-term targets that span 6-12 months, I find I am much more focused and geared towards fulfilling these. Of course, as it happens in life, sometimes you change direction as well, but its possible to look back and view your achievements in the light of what your expectations were, in the short-term.

Yet, the general message we get from the world around us (parents, teachers, peers, all play a role in getting this through) is that it is important to have a plan in life, a general direction in which we move and its best to have a burning, higher ambition. The sub-text is always that this will help us achieve success, which in itself is a super -loaded concept (I could go on and on about what success even means, but that’s for another day!).

For most people, ambition is interpreted as a more practical set of broad rules to live life by–like ‘I want to get rich’, ‘I want to save enough to buy a home’,  ‘I want to see my children settled’ or ‘I want to perform on stage some day’. But to leave a legacy, in my view, it is important to look beyond the self-centered, material perspective and examine how your plans will change the lives of other people. For those burning to become successful entrepreneurs, this may be about introducing new products and services that impact people, or about building a successful corporation and benefiting future shareholders. For creative people, it could be about bringing audiences pleasure through music, dance, theatre, film, art….. For architects, it’s about creating spaces that are functionally or aesthetically excellent or innovative. Increasingly, many of us are highly motivated to impact what the economists call the ‘bottom of the pyramid’; find solutions to improve the lives of the poor.

Whatever it is that pushes your buttons, drives you, its impossible without the counterpart of the ‘ambition’- the action plan! It’s a bit like cities that want to become ‘world-class’ but have no short-term action-oriented guidelines to achieve that long-term vision. Sometimes, the vision itself is also not crystal clear and motivated by a competitive streak and not really by a desire to improve the lives of citizens (I’m wondering if Kamal Nath’s dream of a high-rise Delhi considers how this will impact the man on the street, for instance!).

For those of you who do have a driving ambition, I’m sure you are already on your way to translating this into reality through shorter-term targets. As for me, I don’t have the big picture yet, but I’m happy setting short-term targets and ‘going with the flow’. It’s hard, but I tell myself everyday that I am destined for greatness, and focus myself on the week, month and quarter ahead. Stick around for another ten years and I’ll tell you if it worked 🙂

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