Feasting and fasting

I am writing this as I face laddus, barfis, badam chocolates, and mixture. Oh, the irony.

Denial is good in principle, but is it better than an extra cup of coffee?
Shoba Narayan

October 19, 2014 Updated: October 19, 2014 05:38 PM

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The festive season is in full swing in India. It is a time for celebration, family and pain. People obsess over feasting and fasting. The eternal question that accompanies most happy events, whether they are weddings, parties or holidays, continues to be asked: how to enjoy the array of goodies that tempt the palate at every corner without putting on a few pounds?

It is this conundrum that I’m contemplating as I walk up the hill in Kashmir with a few fellow hikers. We have just finished a fantastic Wazwan, or Kashmiri feast, replete with delicacies: kebabs, a variety of roasted meats and vegetarian dishes for me. I follow a fairly standard routine in such situations. I eat, I replay the wonderful dishes that I had just finished eating in my imagination, following which I dream about the food that is to follow. It is this activity that I’m engaging in when my companion tells me about a concept that is completely alien to my disposition.

I listen, mouth agape, as SS Bijral, a retired inspector general of police in Kashmir, tells me about the “pleasures of denial.” In his red turban, Mr Bijral, 75, cuts a spry, energetic figure as we walk up the hill. The Dal Lake sprawls to one side in the far distance and the dense foliage hugs us on the other. I am doing the walking version of the “stomach-pulled-in” manoeuvre that men do when they pose for a photograph. My mouth is open to avoid huffing and puffing and I am trying not to show the dignified Mr Bijral that I can barely keep up with him.

There are a few benefits of getting old, but for the life of me, I cannot remember them. Losing your memory and becoming acquainted with pain are certainly two of the downsides to ageing. But being older also gives us the opportunity to impart wisdom to the next generation – and it is precisely this that Mr Bijral is doing. Finding pleasure in denial is a nifty concept, and one that he has been following for most of his adult life. The basic idea goes like this: whenever you find something in the food and drink area that is both tempting and avoidable, you have to figure out a way to deny yourself this temptation. As most of us know, temptation lurks in every corner. The dark chocolate that winks at you every time you open the fridge; the fifth cup of fantastic coffee that makes a case for the goodness of caffeine; the aromatic steak that is calling your name; or that street food that reminds you of home.

Each of these are wonderful and completely unnecessary. So, I asked my army companion how he is able to find pleasure in saying no to these delicacies. The trick, he says, is to fast forward into the future. You have to remember what happened the last time you drank that fifth cup of coffee. You have to remember the sleepless night that resulted. Every time you see a piece of luscious red meat, you have to imagine visiting the cardiologist and reading the results of your blood test. “I eat until 75 per cent of my stomach is full, and imagine how light I will feel later as I watch my companions continuing to eat even when they don’t need to,” says Mr Bijral sensibly. Put this way, it is an easy method to follow.

As Bangalore-based wellness expert Sujata Kelkar Shetty says, we eat for a variety of reasons and many of them don’t have anything to do with hunger. Sometimes we eat because we are bored, or because we are lonely, or because we are stressed out and tired, or because we long for those comfortable feelings that the food reminds us of. The trick is to figure out why we are reaching for that tub of ice cream. Is it because the ice cream reminds us of a happy childhood memory? If so, we would be better served by opening up the family album and looking at old photographs while sipping some water?

All of this sounds great but there is only one problem: no matter what we do to it, water will never taste as good as ice cream. Even so, I’m determined to figure out the pleasures of denial during this festive season if only because I don’t want to confront the bathroom scales on January 1, 2015.

Old age

What’s the best way to navigate your way through old age?
Shoba Narayan
October 15, 2014 Updated: October 15, 2014 06:31 PM

My mind has recently been full of sobering thoughts about death, taxes and ageing and the question of how to age gracefully?

The literature on ageing lists many activities that can help us as we get older. Exercise is an obvious one, as is developing a close and nurturing group of friends and family. There is one virtue, however, that is underplayed in many studies about ageing and that is cultivating a passion. This is difficult to do, mostly because we don’t realise its importance until we are too old.

Most adults attempt to live rich and fulfilling lives. Look around at your friends and colleagues. We all have jobs that are sometimes tedious but mostly engaging. We have hobbies. We play golf or tennis. We read a bit before sleeping. We follow a few television shows. We have social networks and we go to restaurants and maintain friendships. What many of us lack is a passion that we can turn to. Work doesn’t count unless it can be parlayed after retirement. If you are an art historian, for instance, you can still be engaged in art studies after retirement.

I know a few people who have this passion for a particular activity.

My brother-in-law in Florida is a physician with a busy private practice. His weekends, however, are devoted to his passion: epigraphy or the study of ancient inscriptions. He collects data on the Indus Valley civilisation and its scripts. He reads reams of literature, talks to scholars from all over the world via Skype, attends conferences and takes online courses. Sometimes an entire weekend will go by without him ever leaving his library.

But what about the rest of us? Perhaps the way to find a solution is to imbue the question with some urgency.

Think about it this way: who is going to hang out with you when you are 80 years old? No matter how affectionate our children are, there comes a point when they are too busy for us, and often, this point comes sooner than we want.

Ageing involves solitude whether you like it or not. Your world shrinks, your friends die and you have to figure out how to keep your mind occupied. Cheery thought, isn’t it?

Sailing through the choppy waters of advanced age involves figuring out an activity that will engage and energise you. Music, for instance, offers great potential for relaxation.

The way to convert this into a passion is to take music appreciation courses.

Similarly, playing chess does not require you to do heavy lifting. It can be played with any child that walks through the door.

If you happen to be spiritually inclined, this is the time to take a deep dive into your religion because, at the end of the day we all have to confront questions about our maker and our role in this world.

Ageing gracefully does not only means slathering on expensive creams and lotions. It can just as easily involve mental somersaults that will leave you refreshed and glad to be alive.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Procrastination

I have learnt how to procrastinate with furious efficiency
Shoba Narayan

October 7, 2014 Updated: October 7, 2014 05:40 PM

It began innocently enough and took a fairly standard trajectory. Prodded by stray comments from the spouse, a sibling, a friend and a parent, I virtuously decided to make yet another effort to improve my life.

As always, I began with grandiose plans that had no chance of being implemented. I would not begin my day by checking email. I would instead hug a child, a spouse, or at least a stuffed animal.

I wouldn’t lie in a somnolent stupor in front of the television, scarfing down potato chips while promising myself that each chip would be the last one. I would ban potato chips from entering my household.

I wouldn’t enter the shower and then realise that every single plastic bottle that littered the shower stall was empty. I would stock each bathroom with a host of fragrant products that would satisfy every human need and then some.

I wouldn’t go to the grocery store for just one (forgotten) ingredient or item at the last minute, just before the guests arrived for dinner and the cake was in danger of collapsing. I would make a running list of grocery needs starting every Monday, tack it to the refrigerator and then shop on Sunday for the week’s needs with furious speed. I would begin by buying several magnets so that I could tack the aforementioned grocery list and every how-to and to-do note on the refrigerator.

And so it went, my messy life.

In desperation, I turned to mobile applications that would help me. “Efficiency apps,” I typed into my computer. Almost like magic, a whole host of websites, apps, and advice columns popped up.

There was one called Self Control that prevented me from mindlessly surfing the internet every time I was stuck for a word.

There was one called iProcrastinate that pretty much described my working process and helped me prevent it.

There were two apps called Pocket and Evernote that allowed me to clip anything I chose from websites for future reference and reading.

That was a vast improvement from my current system, which is to mindlessly scribble quotable quotes and flashes of insight onto the first available piece of paper and then go around the house in a state of permanent irritation, asking: “Has anyone seen that discarded envelope onto which I had written a line from Maya Angelou’s poem? It was a yellow piece of junk mail stating that I had won the lottery and I had written Phenomenal Woman in one corner. Anyone seen it?”

How do you manage the minutiae of your life and keep them from tipping over? Are you a clipper of articles, a list maker, or someone who uses an app like “Clear” or “Wunderlist”, to get things done?

My method has been fairly simple. I prioritise the things I need to keep track of: flashes of genius, irreplaceable insights and the phone number of the store that supplied school uniforms. Everything else just falls through the cracks.

I am in the market, if you will, for a personal assistant who will keep things in order. Failing that, I have resorted to reading advice columns from scarily efficient people like Martha Stewart – who devil their eggs, glaze their pudding, iron their underwear, and tuck the corners of their bed linen into severe straight lines.

They all begin with one piece of advice – actually two. The first thing to achieve household order is to actually believe it is possible; that a permanent state of chaos and searching for objects is an aberration, not the norm.

The second is to view such an outcome with admiration, not scorn. The latter seems to be my Waterloo. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but not in my book. I think that if the universe began with chaos, it is good enough for me.

This attitude may make me feel superior to all those busy worker bees who tirelessly file, scrub, segregate and organise, but it doesn’t help in real life. I must emulate them rather than mock their ways.

I must join the bees instead of thinking myself above it all. Who am I – a queen bee? Even queen bees self-destruct without the colony.

As I write this, my desk is pristine; my newspapers are filed in an ornamental fashion, my fridge is full of magnets with important notes. Now if only I could find that piece of paper in which I wrote the time of the doctor’s appointment.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

From thin to fat

Both my brother and I were painfully thin while growing up, which in Chennai was a bad thing. My Mom gave us strange concoctions to fatten us up– raw eggs with milk was the worst– to no effect.

Now I am finally confronting my slowing metabolism with wonder (I’ve gained weight!) and shock. And finally, I am exercising.

I’m going to keep up my fitness regime, even if it kills me
Shoba Narayan

August 12, 2014 Updated: August 12, 2014 05:34 PM
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The women in my kick-boxing class generate a lot of oestrogen. Or is it testosterone that is created when women kick, punch and scream their way to fitness nirvana?
Keeping up with these women takes my breath away – literally. I wheeze and cough as I perform high kicks and low punches. The woman in front of me glances back, as if low fitness levels were contagious. She is wearing a pink leotard, and she goes through the class like a fireball, never letting up, never giving less than 100 per cent.
She is small, packed tightly, treads lithely and punches like Muhammad Ali. Just the fact that I belong to the same species as her makes me proud, even giddy. But maybe that’s just the exercise.
I wonder about her, this pink leotard lady. Perhaps she has a job in marketing and is forced to be nice to clients all day. Perhaps that’s why she punches so fiercely.
She smiles at me sometimes. I don’t smile back. If I do, she’ll become my friend. Then she’ll start giving me advice about how to become fit; and from there it is a short road to “stop eating potatoes”, which I absolutely refuse to do. In fact, I am eating a chip right now, just to prove my point.
For people who, like me, lack discipline, fitness classes are a great motivator. They turn fitness into a group activity rather than a Herculean lone task. Of late, I’ve signed up for them all: zumba, kick-boxing, pilates, circuit training, cross- fit, yoga, you name it. Whether I go to them all is another matter.
When I do go, which is infrequently, I get daunted by the level at which my cohorts are performing. Whoever thinks that India is a country full of unfit, diabetes-prone, cholesterol-laden citizens perpetually on the verge of cardiac arrests ought to go to cross-fit classes.
Fitness is a mild obsession of mine, not because I am fit or I am working towards getting fit in any serious manner but because I am trying to game the system and my body to see if I can optimise fitness and lose the greatest number of kilograms with the least possible effort.
Every device that maximises benefit without extra effort, I will buy. I suck my stomach in during a car ride until I almost asphyxiate. In yoga, it is called uddiyana bandha, and we are supposed to do it during ashtanga yoga exercise. I do it while standing in queues.
Kick-boxing is a recent addition to my fitness cocktail, mostly because it calms me down.
The five women who stand in the front row are the leaders of our kick-boxing class. They stare murderously at their reflections in the mirror as they kick, punch, snarl, side swipe, squat and punch again.
A few rounds of this and my eyes glaze. I wobble like a snake that has just been banged on the head by a snake charmer. They glance at me; their eyes even look concerned. But they don’t stop kicking.
This, then, is what it has come down to. A person could have a cardiac arrest and keel over, right there in the fitness studio, and all those extreme-fitness mavens would just keep on punching.

Short working hours

I honestly don’t think shorter working hours are going to work. People want to work more because they like it.

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All work and no play is no way to spend the rest of your life

Shoba Narayan
August 9, 2014 Updated: August 9, 2014 05:59

How many hours a week do you work on average? For most of us, the problem is not the division between work and home, but the fact that work has now seeped into every part of our lives. We are constantly checking email without differentiating whether it’s work email or pleasure.
Employees and employers are able to stay in touch 24/7, thanks – or perhaps it is more appropriate to say no thanks – to text messages and apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. The combined effect of this constant infiltration of the work culture into our lives can be overwhelming.
For many of us, it is difficult to switch off, and indeed, we don’t even know how to do it. I certainly am a victim, if you want to call it that. I cannot go one hour without checking my email or my phone, whether it is Sunday or whether I’m on holiday. The whole notion of switching off or taking time off for leisure seems oddly outdated in our continuously connected lives. Along come a couple of billionaires who suggest the opposite. Recently, both Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and Larry page, the cofounder of Google, have suggested different versions of a shorter workweek. Slim suggests that people work for three days a week with longer daily hours. (In response, heraldscotland.com posted a story headlined: “Fat chance of Slim’s short week working.”) Page suggested shorter working hours as a way of combating unemployment.
Both billionaires linked shorter work-weeks with higher life satisfaction. Is that really true?
Of the two approaches, I think Slim’s is better. With a net worth of $79.1 billion, Slim doesn’t even need to work. His approach suggests that people work longer hours per day –11 hours to be exact – and work for a longer number of years. The current retirement age of 65 is outdated, according to him. I agree. The beauty of working three days a week is that you can actually plan to do different things that physically and geographically remove you from work. You can go for an all-day hike, for example. You can take a camping trip.
Page’s proposal for shorter working hours will not change our lifestyles very much, in my view. It is not that we don’t have leisure time these days. We do. It is just that it is hard to switch off, even late at night when we don’t need to work. Being on again, off again has the benefit of not letting work issues fall through the cracks, but has the huge disadvantage of clogging up our mental space with everything that is only work related. How many of us don’t check work email on the weekend? I would venture to suggest that it is a miniscule proportion. Getting four out of seven days free per week, on the other hand, offers plenty of possibilities. You could volunteer,, or you could sign up for a course.
The larger question has to do with the purpose of work. Do you work to make a living or to create a purposeful life? If you need to work to make a living, many of these philosophical questions aren’t really relevant. If you don’t need to work – at least to the level that you do and the hours that you do – to put bread on the table, the question of a shorter work-week becomes very relevant.
Why are you working? If you are over 50 and reasonably senior in your job, it would be a good time to figure out an anwwer this questions.
In coming decades, the more meaningful issues will not be about work, but will be about leisure and legacy. Building a family and raising good children and grandchildren are issue that have to do with legacy. Both require a time commitment that is linked with leisure. If you are stressed at work, it is unlikely that you will be open to the small signals that your children and family send.
Regardless of whether you choose the Page model or the Slim model, one thing is clear in my head: work less; if possible, find meaningful work; find an activity that will see you through years of leisure; cultivate a group of friends that you can stay in touch with over several decades; and last but not least, figure out your spiritual parameters that will help you stay content and resilient as you grow older.

College Bound

Thanks to all the advice-givers of this piece.

University is a time for discovery, exploration … and even purple hair
Shoba Narayan

August 4, 2014 Updated: August 4, 2014 04:20 PM
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‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives; and one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.
A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every-one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”
Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.
Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?
We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.
This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is the famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.
Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.
In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.
College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much compunction; when the risk is low. Take advantage of these four years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – fail.
Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.
Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. “Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover the prince,” as a friend said.
Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.
Being part of a college team, regardless of whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.
Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.

Clubs and dress code

It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Focus

Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.

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My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

The Confidence Conundrum

still love the line: “confidence is turning thoughts into action.”

The confidence conundrum and what we can do about it
Shoba Narayan

June 17, 2014 Updated: June 17, 2014 18:12:00

One of the things I announce in a public forum, often just for effect, is that my lifelong dream is to be a standup comic. It produces the desired effect. Everybody laughs. If you saw me, you would know why. I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny. In fact, I am pretty much galactically unfunny. It feels pathetic to admit this, but announcing this desire to be a comic is my funniest line. I am no closer to achieving this dream than I was the first time I actually said those words. I keep telling the world that I want to be a standup comic but I don’t do anything about it.
This paradox has been addressed in a number of recent essays about female self-confidence. One essay in The Atlantic, titled, “The Confidence Gap,” describes research based on social psychology that shows how women consistently undervalue and underrate themselves. Men and boys, on the other hand, consistently think that they are better than they actually are. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” is a thought that has crossed the minds of the most powerful and seemingly confident women. What’s with this confidence conundrum, and what can women do about it?
Although, inevitably, studies deal in sweeping generalizations, they often show that many women are more perfectionist than men. They would rather do something perfectly or not do anything at all. Men on the other hand, are willing to blunder through tasks, blithely making mistakes and learning from it. They plunge into activities that are far above their abilities, get criticized for it, get used to the criticism and improve. The criticism makes them resilient: witness the sight of young boys in the playground, calling each other “morons” but improving their game in the process.
Playing sports, it turns out, is a great confidence-builder. Rough-housing and trading insults on the sports field is great preparation for the testosterone filled aggression of Silicon Valley. By dropping out of sports, girls are denying themselves the chance to grow in these areas.
Some psychologists say that focusing on competence rather than self-esteem is a good way to increase confidence. Self-esteem is a nebulous concept, they say. Simply telling a child that she is wonderful will not make her feel good about herself.
Instead, focusing on the tasks that she has accomplished; the effort that she has expended in achieving measurable results is often a better way to bolster teenager self-esteem. The next time you tell your child, “Honey, you are so smart,” stop yourself. Instead, put out a 10,000-piece puzzle, ask them to finish it and then say, “Wow! You worked hard at it and solved it.”
My favourite line comes from Prof Richard Petty, of Ohio State University, who has studied confidence building for decades. “Confidence,” he says, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.”
I think it is a terrific line because it tells me what to do. There is no point in my labouring the point that I want to be a stand-up comic if I don’t do a thing about it.
The trick is to silence the voices in my head – the ones that say that I don’t have a funny bone in my body and will therefore fall flat at this exercise.
The trick is to actually get out and engage; to act; to rush “rashly” into the goal at hand instead of thinking once, then twice, and then succumbing to inertia.
Near my home is a club that offers stand up opportunities for amateurs every Thursday. I think that I need to get out there and attempt comedy. Next week, I aim to do just that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir.