Use your commute

24 September 2016 | E-Paper

Work out during your commute

Engaging your core while in the car, bus or autorickshaw is simple. All you need to do is make sure that your back doesn’t lean against the backrest

Try sitting upright in your car rather than slumping back into the seat. Photo: iStock

Try sitting upright in your car rather than slumping back into the seat. Photo: iStock

There is a great scene in The Other Guys, where Mark Wahlberg pumps his arms up and down and shouts, “I want to be a peacock.” His chicken-like pose works for the movie, but would be totally wrong in the real world. Peacocks don’t pump their arms and jump up and down. They are more haughty divas on the catwalk than irate cop.

Have you ever wondered about good posture in animals? About how a giraffe maintains its poise in spite of an ungainly long neck? About how a porcupine, which looks horrendously ill-proportioned (big body, tiny legs), still manages to run elegantly? Harvard University professor Andrew Biewener runs a lab that studies animal locomotion. And one of his early discoveries was about why large animals with relatively small bones and muscles move so elegantly, without overloading their skeletons. The reason: good posture.

When I’m stuck in traffic, I tend to slump back into the seat and curse fluently. One day, I tried something different. Since my back hurt, I decided to sit upright, moving a couple of inches forward instead of leaning back, as I usually did. The pain didn’t go away, but there was a side benefit. I discovered I had to engage my core muscles to sit upright as the driver zigzagged his way through traffic. I have been doing this ever since.

Engaging your core while in the car, bus or autorickshaw is simple. All you need to do is make sure that your back doesn’t lean against the backrest. Sit a few inches forward in the seat. No matter how much the vehicle jerks or turns, don’t lean back. If possible, pretend that there is a rod going through your spine. Or pretend you are a peacock.

Stay alert, of course, to ensure the jerks or sudden brakes don’t injure you. But hold the forward position for the length of the ride. You will be surprised at how tight your abs feel at the end of the trip.

This exercise works better when you are stuck in stop-and-go traffic and have a driver who’s trying to beat the odds. You are trying to hold your position by tightening your core during the jerky starts and stops. After a 45-minute car ride, with you sitting in this position, you will be ready for the advanced level.

This too is simple practice. You lift your feet off the floor while sitting in the car. Just lift up your feet, oh, maybe a couple of inches. That’s it. Hold your position. After a while, your thighs will start to hurt—that is the objective.

Harder than you think, isn’t it? Your back has no support, so you have to rely on your core to sit upright. Stay for 15 minutes in this position, if you can.

Sitting upright has another benefit: It improves your willpower. Studies have shown that students who don’t slouch build up discipline and willpower over time. No matter where you are, reminding yourself to sit upright and have good posture has far-reaching benefits that have nothing to do with your body muscles.

The great thing is that you can do this workout during a commute. Every long commute, then, becomes a gift. Isn’t that great?

Shoba Narayan is an expert sitter-without-slouching on car rides. The fact that she slouches everywhere else is besides the point. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.

The Age of Betterment

About the elephant.  That was in Nepal.

The age of betterment: Short cuts to health and happiness

People do many things to better themselves. They take up a sport, learn languages, do yoga, meditate and practise gratitude

Shobha Narayan in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo: Arpita Dutta

Shobha Narayan in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo: Arpita Dutta

What do the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Dale Carnegie and Dan Ariely have in common—besides the letter D? They all teach you how to live better. If freedom was the mantra of India before its inception as a nation, dignity, its drumbeat at incipience, prosperity, its goal during our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, then betterment is the hallmark of our times.

We live in an age of betterment. Blame it on the fact that this generation has lived through an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity, which, fingers crossed, will not change even as our world fragments into “narrow domestic walls”, thanks to nationalism, populism, parochialism, terrorism, xenophobia, call it what you will. In daily life, our goals are modest: We all want to be stronger, fitter, faster, thinner—comparative verbs all that reflect the comparison-seeking, self-documenting, selfie world that we live in.

That said, self-cultivation is an ancient pursuit, obsessed upon and perfected by old cultures: Greece, Rome, China, India. The first self-help books go back to the third century. Sanskrit has its Brahmana and Smriti literature, not to mention theBhagavad Gita, teaching citizens how to lead good lives. Latin has Cicero, Virgin, Ovid, St Augustine of Hippo, Descartes and Spinoza, all of whom philosophized about virtue and betterment. Chinese has its Tao Te Ching, a masterwork on life and living. Today, self-cultivation is less about removing layers of ego and hubris and more about setting the timer for 10 minutes of programmed meditation, the kind we see in the television drama Billions. Status quo is uncomfortable to our species. Stumbling towards happiness, having a mindset that supports growth, adopting power poses, and leading fulfilled lives are the aspirations of our time. If you prefer homeostasis, why bother living, seems to be the message.

Self-improvement takes many guises today. Several surveys, including one conducted by Field Agent, a data collection blog, and the American College of Sports Medicine, state that the top trends include fitness wearables, diet foods, gym memberships, apps, time-management tools, educational courses, fibre, probiotics, and kitchen appliances like juicers and blenders. This column will talk about all these sections, and then some.

People do many things to better themselves. They take up a sport, learn languages, do yoga, meditate and practise gratitude. They undergo therapy: Cognitive behavioural therapy is the current favourite, and it even has a dedicated app called Moodkit. I have tried all these things.

I am a constant optimizer. I love productivity apps and self-help books. I subscribe to, and read, countless blogs that fall under the genre of life hacks. I multitask my way to incremental improvements. I listen to podcasts while walking on the treadmill and meditate while stuck in traffic. I have a unique obsession though. I am into short cuts—and that is what will differentiate this column from others. Minimum input, maximum output. You could call me lazy, but mine is a unique kind of laziness. It has an Indian inventiveness (jugaad) and urgency to it. This column is a way to pin down (or pen down) a method to my madness.

Every Friday, I will write about things that I have been doing all my life. Simple things like stretching while waiting for the coffee to brew. Some, a bit more complex, with some grounding in psychology and science. But all of them easily doable. This is one column where feedback is all-important. I seek your tips, tricks and methods of self-improvement. If appropriate, I will amplify them in this column, attributing the idea to you, of course.

You can’t be bothered with all this self-help s#*t? Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to The Better Life.

Shoba Narayan has not read Cicero, only the multiple blog versions of his self-improvement tips. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.



The Better Life

I am thrilled to start a new column called “The Better Life.”

The piece below explains everything.

How to get fit without exercising and other such shortcuts

Simple things like stretching while waiting for the coffee to brew—and some a bit more complex grounded in psychology and science—but all easily do-able

We live in the age of betterment. As adjectives go, this means living in or aspiring to the comparative state—faster, thinner, stronger, more disciplined, just better. We want to get better at managing people; have more control over our finances; learn to manage stress better; have better work-life balance; and the mother of all betterments: be more productive. “Everyday, in every way, I am getting better and better,” as the guru of self-affirmations, French psychologist, Emile Coue said.

Self-improvement is a multimillion-dollar industry, including apps, books, TV shows and products dedicated to helping us lead better lives. We may roll our eyes, but we still read the blog post, listen to the podcast or buy the book because it plays to the human instinct to improve. Status quo is uncomfortable to our species.

Stumbling towards happiness, gaining a growth mindset, learning to be zen, and leading fulfilled lives are the aspirations of our time. This relentless desire to become better at everything percolates our milieu in ways that are unimaginable to our parents. Blame it on capitalism. Betterment is the product of a prosperous society that has not seen a war in its lifetime. It is an old pursuit but its modern avatar is helped by a range of tools.

Most ancient cultures considered self-cultivation to be the noblest of all goals. In today’s world, self-cultivation is less about peeling off the layers of ego and hubris and more about setting the timer for 10 minutes of programmed meditation. Betterment requires a desire to get ahead in life. If you prefer homeostasis, why bother?

“What is a hack?” I asked my daughter, the computer engineer.

“LOL, why?” came the text.

“Well, we all keep saying ‘life hacks’ and I know that it means ways of getting better, but what does hack in the computer sense mean,” I asked.

“Hacking means getting access to information that is secure. Why are you awake at 3 a.m.?” she asked.

“I have to manage my sleep cycles. Arianna Huffington says so. She has written a whole book on how to sleep better.”

Better, better, better. You see where I am going?

When I pitched the idea for this column to Mint’s editor, I had what I thought was a simple and pithy title. “Dear Sukumar,” I wrote. “I want to write a series of essays on awesomeness. On optimal living. Let us call it ‘365 ways to optimize yourself: how to get fit without exercising; improve your memory and well-being; stay smart and attractive; and become completely awesome in the process: a modest approach’.”

“That’s the title?” came the reply. “That won’t fit in the headline. Why not call it ‘The Better Life’? It’s a nice segue from your ‘Good Life’ column.”

I loved the title. And so it came to be: these words that you are reading.

I was born to write this column. I am a constant optimizer. I love productivity apps and self-help books. I subscribe to and read countless blogs that fall under the genre of life hacks. I multitask my way to incremental improvements. I listen to podcasts while walking on the treadmill and meditate while stuck in traffic. I have a unique obsession though. I am into shortcuts—and that is what will differentiate this column from others. Minimum input, maximum output—and I don’t mean in the alimentary sense.

Buddha got his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. I awakened to my peculiar proclivity for shortcuts, appropriately enough in the gym. Gyms give me an inferiority complex. I try to psych myself up before I go to them. I wear colourful tight leotards that have tiger prints on them. I try to imitate a cheetah’s haughty, mincing walk. I wear sneakers that add an inch to my height and make me jump without trying. I carry a respectably large gym bag filled with the dregs of my life just to look like a serious gymmer. I wear headbands, make-up and false eyelashes that together make me look exhausted, like I have been working out for five hours. It never works. I walk in, see all those sweating bodies and feel the bile rise. I needed a different approach to get fit, I decided—a practical, realistic, sensible one.

I have three immediate goals. The first is to lose weight and get fit without exercising. The second is to slow down my mind without necessarily meditating, and the third is to discover fun products and apps that will help me with endeavours one and two.

You could call me lazy, but mine is a unique kind of laziness. It has an Indian inventiveness and urgency to it.

This column is a way to pin down (or pen down) a method to my madness.

Every Friday, I will write about things that I have been doing all my life. Simple things like stretching while waiting for the coffee to brew. Some, a bit more complex with some grounding in psychology and science. But all of them are easily do-able.

You can’t be bothered with all this self-help s#*t?

Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to “The Better Life”.

As this column went to print, Shoba Narayan was jogging, walking and eating her way through the obstacle course of crowds thronging Bengaluru for Ganapati Visarjan, St Mary’s Feast and pre-Bakrid festivities. Amazing India!

Marrying my cellphone.

Loved writing (and rewriting) this column, mostly to get the word play right.  Thanks to the husband for supplying the line, “At least the phone is smart.”

07 July 2016 | E-Paper

Getting married to your phone

Our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. There is an app for every emotion. Getting hitched to your phone is the next logical step.

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“I am thinking of marrying my cellphone,” I tell my husband. We are sitting beside each other, tapping on our colour-coded iPads—his, black, and mine Hermes orange—the colour, not the brand. “Oh really,” he says in that overly enthusiastic voice he affects when he hasn’t heard a word I have said.

My inspiration is Aaron Chervenak, a Los Angeles man who drove to Las Vegas and married his smartphone, complete with a ring and priest who proclaimed them “husband and cellphone”. Documented and uploaded on YouTube, the marriage isn’t legal. But that, according to Chervenak, is a small price to pay for declaring undying love for what is for many of us our favourite appendage.

“If we’re gonna be honest with ourselves, we connect with our phones on so many emotional levels,” says Chervenak in the YouTube video. “We look to it for solace, to calm us down, to put us to sleep, to ease our minds, and to me, that’s also what a relationship is about. So, in a sense, my smartphone has been my longest relationship. That’s why I decided to see what it was like to actually marry a phone.”

The man is right. Our relationship with our devices is almost as complicated as the Brexit referendum. We may want to quit and return to a way of life that is the stuff of nostalgia but, like David Cameron, Boris Johnson or the British people, we have no idea how galactically difficult it will be to untangle this particular union. More addictive than marijuana, more trance-inducing than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s addled speeches, our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. In a sense, they define us. Look at Chernevak’s list. There is an app for every emotion. For solace, there is MoodKit. For calm, you can meditate through the app Calm or Headspace. To sleep, there are lulling nature sounds, music, or podcasts. To ease your mind, there are a million games. There are countless others. I use Grid Diary for journaling, 7 Minute Workout to exercise, BrainHQ to focus, Freedom and SelfControl to stop distractions, and 50 Languages to learn Kannada. On average, I touch my device more often than I touch my spouse.

“I think I will elope and marry my smartphone,” I say loudly.

This time he looks up, my husband, with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that I have come to recognize. I can hear the wheels whirring in his head as he processes this bizarre statement, sans preamble or context. I know what he is thinking: What have I done and what is the best response? I even know what he will say, for it would have been my approach. When you don’t know how you have messed up, offence is the best form of defence.

“Well, you certainly pay more attention to your phone than you do to me,” he says huffily.

“At least the phone is a smart one,” I retort and I meant it to sting.

And so it comes to this. You have been married for so long that you can hear each other think; and the object of your jealousy, the mistress in your ménage à trois, is a device that rings instead of purring, that buzzes in lieu of flirting.

Viewed through this prism, marrying your cellphone is both the logical next step and a little sad. Will Chervenak’s bride put up with it when he upgrades to the next model? Will he leave her for someone from a different species?

On 3 December 1992, the first text message was sent over a phone—“Merry Christmas”. The late Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen, pitched the idea of a “short messaging service” at a telecoms conference in Copenhagen. Nokia incorporated the idea into its phones and the rest is history, or at least over a trillion messages sent per year. Remember voicemail—that quaint outdated thing we used to do?

I love voicemails and try to leave some to friends and family through WhatsApp or iPhones. But they don’t appreciate my cutesy messages because they are an intrusion. Reading a text can be done surreptitiously while you are bored in a boardroom. Listening to a voicemail requires headphones and solitude.

In the new reality, communication is condensed for efficiency and speed. Letters replace words (R u ok?); emoticons replace the emotions that leak through your voice when you actually speak to people or leave voicemail. Texting, unlike live conversation, offers a great buffer. If someone asks you an uncomfortable question, you don’t have to respond. The surprise or pain that you feel will not be apparent to the other party. You can fake a response by sending a “thumbs up” emoji when you actually want to kill yourself and the other person.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s teenagers. Thanks to selfies, they know how to pose: pouty fish lips for girls and macho glares behind glares (sunglasses) for the boys. They are camera-savvy, understanding composition and light in an intuitive way. Facebook is waning in popularity among preteens. They prefer the casualness of Snapchat and the texture of Instagram. A thousand words, typed on Facebook Messenger, cannot convey the mood of a party as effectively as an Instagram photo.

There are many instances when communicating via a device is an excellent option. When you have to spring things on unsuspecting spouses, there is no better friend than a cellphone. Consider this message: “5 friends showing up at home. Know you have world cup finals. Thought u r going to friend’s house to watch so agreed. Hope ok.” Can you imagine springing this on your spouse in person? Through texts you can escape his curses.

Or consider this message to your son or daughter. “Why are you not picking up the phone? You will be grounded if you do not answer my call. I am serious. And by the way, you have to attend the wedding of that cousin you hate next week with us” (offence before defence always, my friends, particularly with children. Yell at them before forcing them to do stuff they detest).

And now I need to go reconnect with my to-be spouse. There are messages to read, emojis to craft, photos to share, and miles to go before I sleep.

Shoba Narayan didn’t elope with her cellphone. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Judgment

Do you have good judgment? How do you teach it?

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Good Judgment


My uncle Sivaramakrishnan called from Mumbai this morning stating that he wanted to ‘capture Twitter.’  

Sivaramakrishnan-mama is called SRK by neighbours in his largely Gujarati housing complex, a fact that he accepts with mixed feelings. “I can’t expect a Shah or a Patel with their one syllable names to wrap their tongue around Sivaramakrishnan,” he says philosophically.  “I don’t even tell them that my full name is Sivaramakrishna Sundaram.  They will stop sending theplas and your aunt is addicted to them.”

The other problem is that every time someone introduces him as “our dear SRK,” people expect Shah Rukh Khan, not a short, plump, balding bespectacled Sivaramakrishnan. 

SRK-Mama is an active Rotarian.  He has become interested in Twitter because he feels that it will increase his profile.  He harbours political ambitions and needs a platform.  The fact that he has to ask me for help shows how desperate he is.  I have some 500 followers and have no clue as to how to grow them.  

“Can’t I buy Twitter followers like how politicians buy votes?” asked SRK-Mama.

“Twitter is like catching a tiger by the tail,” I replied sagely.  “Look at how they are shaming that dentist who shot Cecil the Lion on social media.  He will go bankrupt.”

“There is no question of me shooting a lion.  After all, I am vegetarian.  If anything, I will let the lion eat me,” SRK-Mama said piously.

I chewed a “Bite Me” cupcake morosely.  SRK-Mama had caught me on a bad day.  I don’t know if you read Anita Raghavan’s excellent piece about Rajat Gupta serving jail time.  I did and it raised lots of questions about judgment and destiny.  Gupta, everyone will tell you—and many have—is a brilliant leader, thoughtful family man, and a large-hearted philanthropist.  He attributes his fall from grace to “destiny” in the article.  Mostly, it was bad judgment.  He made a series of small choices about friendships and notions of wealth that led to one catastrophic mistake.  But here is the nub and this is what got me to chew the cupcake morosely: such a scenario could happen to you or I. 

“Do you have good judgment, SRK Mama?” I asked.  

He paused chewing his murukku and breathed nasally over the phone line.  “You see, ma, people of my generation are not trained to have good judgment.  How can you learn good judgment if the biggest decision of your life—your life partner—is chosen for you in an arranged marriage? I didn’t even seen your aunt before I married her.  Where is the question of good judgment?”

The dictionary says that judgment is the ability to make “considered decisions.”  It also says that judgment is a “misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment.”  The former leads to the latter, I guess.  

Judgment can also seem like a crapshoot.  Most people who make catastrophic mistakes rarely realize that they are doing so while in action: witness fashion designer John Galliano who was caught on video spewing anti-Semitic hate while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; witness Justine Sacco, the South African PR professional who blithely tweeted about Africans and AIDS and lost her job.  Or Rajat Gupta who thought he was taking a call in the middle of a board meeting, little realizing that it would take him to jail.  In this age when anything you do can be videotaped, shared, or tweeted, bad judgment calls can be magnified and amplified like never before. Worst of all, you are not allowed to lick your wounds in private.  And here was SRK-Mama, wanting to dive right in.

“Do you know people who have thousands of Twitter followers, and if so, how did they achieve it?” he asked, sounding like an engineering entrance exam.

I actually know several people who have over 35,000 Twitter followers.  Many of them are obsessing about how to double these followers, while simultaneously outraged that people who aren’t as good as them have more followers.  Meanwhile, their spouses complain that they are “addicted” to Twitter.   

The literature on how to develop good judgment is scarce and nebulous mostly because there is no fool-proof method of cultivating good judgment.  It isn’t as clean cut as tidying up a room using Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s rule of keeping only those objects that give you joy.  Judgment is messy; has little to do with intelligence; happens all the time, not as a rehearsal but as a live-stream; and can frequently go wrong at innocuous moments.  Then how do you cover yourself? How do you reduce the odds of bad judgment? Here is my list that is in progress.

1. Eliminate distractions.  Don’t multitask.  Bad judgments happen when you aren’t paying attention; when you are preoccupied with something else. 

2. Cultivate people you don’t like because they think differently from you.  This will force you to question your assumptions; and assumption, to quote the immortal lines of John Maclane in the movie, Die Hard, is the “mother of all f*^$ ups.”

3. Try your best to tame your ego.  A lot of bad judgment calls happen when you are feeling like the master of the universe; when your ego is so puffed up with pride that you cannot see the hurricane that is coming straight at you— to hit you in the face.

In view of all this, I tried to give SRK-Mama some advice.

“Don’t get on social media,” I said.  “You are a contented man.  Twitter will spoil your peace of mind.  You will start comparing yourself unnecessarily with people who have no relevance to your life.  And feel like a loser in the bargain.”

“How does Chandraayan the Lion sound?” he asked.  “I am a Leo.  A lion.  Instead of Cecil the Lion as my Twitter name, why not give it an Indian twist?”

I sighed.  There was no point protecting an octogenarian from the savage mores of the online universe.  It was a jungle out there and Chandraayan the Lion would have to learn to fend for himself. 

Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon the aforementioned Chandraayan the Lion, follow him, will you? Just don’t shoot him down.


Shoba Narayan is looking forward to reading the book that Rajat Gupta is purportedly writing in prison.  She hopes that it will talk about judgement calls.  Instagram @shobanarayan.  Twitter @shobanarayan

Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement


A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at

White Lies for Mint

The human urge to cheat and lie goes against the desire to feel good when you look in the mirror. Yet, humans lie and cheat.

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

The words came out so fast and for the silliest of reasons. Last week, my Japanese neighbour, Mayumi, shared her fresh home-made tofu with me. A few hours later, I ran into her in the garden downstairs. “How do you like the tofu?” she asked with a hopeful beam.

“Oh, it’s wonderful. So soft and fresh,” I replied.

I hadn’t tasted the stuff.


Truth be told: Friendships would be tough to sustain if the occasional white lie was completely ruled out; for instance, honesty over a gift of tofu could cause friends to part ways. Photographs by Thinkstock

Truth be told: Friendships would be tough to sustain if the occasional white lie was completely ruled out; for instance, honesty over a gift of tofu could cause friends to part ways. Photographs by Thinkstock


Have you ever uttered a white lie? Before you say “No”, let me remind you of the time your friend sang off-key during a party or puja. As a host, what did you do after she finished the song? You clapped and told her that it was lovely, right? What about the time when your colleague (whom you like and respect in general) asked you if you had read his policy paper—the one you thought was drivel? What did you say? 

With my untasted tofu, I fell victim to a concept that economists call framing. I blame it on the question really.

Had Mayumi asked, “Did you taste the tofu?”, it would have been very easy for me to say I hadn’t. But when she asked if I liked the tofu, and that too with such a hopeful smile on her pretty face, it seemed cruel to say “No”. Far easier to please her by saying that the stuff she had prepared for me was ripe and tasty. With a simple white lie, I was making her happy.

As behavioural economist Dan Ariely notes in his lectures and writings, the human urge to cheat and lie goes against the desire to feel good when you look in the mirror. Yet, humans lie and cheat. The way we do this—something that studies corroborate—is by doing a little cheating some of the time, so that we get the benefits of cheating without feeling bad about ourselves. The same rule applies to white lies. We say them, not because we are compulsive, pathological liars but because they are quick and easy.




A friend of mine decided to do something about this. Sriram took out a contract where he committed to pay 17 cents (around Rs. 8) each time he uttered a white lie. is a website that attempts to help people accomplish their goals—exercising four days a week, giving up sweets. You pay a penalty each time you fall off the proverbial treadmill. I read about stickK in a book called Nudge, but found it too cumbersome to use. So I decided to just pay attention to the white lies I was saying. It wasn’t often, after all. Or so I thought. 

The next morning, I lied—to my child, no less. My daughter came into my bed late at night, whimpering about bad dreams. Our bed is too small and I didn’t sleep at all. When we woke up, she asked (again with that hopeful face that was going to be my nemesis) if I had slept well.

What did I do? I didn’t explain that I had slept fitfully because she had pulled every inch of the blanket over herself. I didn’t tell her that she kept kicking me. I merely lied.

“Did you sleep well, Ma?”

“Like a baby, darling. I loved having you back in our bed,” I replied with a genuine Duchenne smile that involves both the zygomatic major muscle and the rise of the orbicularis oculi. Authentic smile; fake words. Authentic sentiment but not the truth. Is truth overrated?

Later, I asked Sriram—the founder of the white-lie experiment—what he would have done in my situation. He laughed and said that he would have changed the topic. Perhaps I could have said the truth, said Sriram—that I hadn’t slept all night, but I still loved having her in my bed. Such nuanced explanations don’t work well with children, not at 7 in the morning. They want a Yes or No answer. That’s my excuse, anyway.

A few days later, I lied again, to another friend, who had dropped in at home to pick up something. It was prearranged. I had forgotten. My friend sent me a message: “Where are you?” I am on my way, I SMSed back. It was technically true. I was on my way home, in an hour, after finishing my pedicure. My friend picked up the package and left. Actually, that was a white lie. I wasn’t at a pedicure. I was having a massage but I didn’t want you readers to think I was a dilettante. You see, this is why we lie: to make ourselves seem better than we are.

White lies, in such situations, are at least easier to understand. Unlike my tofu incident, where the lie didn’t gain me anything, lying to my friend had to do with self-esteem. I wanted to seem like an organized person who didn’t forget appointments. The Chinese call this mianzi, or saving face.

White lies serve a noble purpose in society. They lubricate social interactions and make life bearable. What if the colleague you are attracted to doesn’t like you? When you ask her out to lunch, do you think she is going to say: “Sorry, but I can’t stand you so I’d rather not have lunch with you. Not now. Not ever.” She’s going to make up a reason: say that she has other commitments and is “otherwise engaged”. You know she is lying but your foolish ego will thank her for it anyway.

I can’t say that I have stopped uttering white lies. I can say that I have become more conscious of them. When there is no obvious benefit, I am able to catch myself and do the hardest thing of all in that particular situation: Tell the truth.

So the next time you ask me how the tofu was, I’ll say: “It was tasteless. I only eat it for the good flavonoids and antioxidants.” Unless you are Japanese and enjoy subtle cuisine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Shoba Narayan enjoyed writing this column. And that, dear reader, is not a white lie. Write to her at

Lessons in Rajat Gupta’s phone call for Mint Lounge

Here is a podcast that I did right after the Rajat Gupta tapes leaked for Indicast.

Here is a column I wrote about Gupta.  I must have re-written this piece a million times. Here it is at Mint’s page.

Here it is, copied below.

There is a Sanskrit saying that I grew up hearing, Vinasha kaleshu viparitha buddhi. My grandfather used it to sketch out doomsday scenarios, the idea being that as one’s doom approaches, one’s mind works perversely like Ravana when he kidnapped Sita or Duryodhan before the Mahabharat. What fascinated me was the corollary. If your mind works perversely in bad times, can you avert the bad times by adjusting your mind and your behaviour? The original phrase is not predictive. It is fatalistic and talks about a certain doom. But could it be watered down somewhat and applied predictively to prevent mistakes? Let me explain.

Why would a person who has spent a lifetime and a stellar career keeping client confidences break off from a board meeting to make a call to a hedge fund manager? If it was a misstep, could he have somehow intuited it and stopped himself? Perhaps he was simply returning a phone call that he didn’t need to at that moment? Could he have realized that his mind was playing perverse tricks on him; that he was making avoidable mistakes?

Is Rajat Gupta culpable? That’s for the US federal court to decide in the highly watched insider trading case against the billionaire founder of the Galleon Group, Raj Rajaratnam. The word on the street is that Gupta may have been guilty of “over-socializing”, but nothing more. The more interesting question is this: Why now? Why did this happen to Gupta now, after retirement, especially since, as he has said, he spent a career being discreet? As Gupta wrote in his impassioned letter to the dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB), which he co-founded: “I have spent my entire professional career zealously guarding the confidences of my clients. There is no reason for me to suddenly deviate from a lifetime of probity and honour.”
I don’t follow astrology, but I don’t dismiss it either. Astrology claims to let us know when we are going through bad times and offers palliative measures such as wearing certain gemstones. But you don’t need astrology for that. Each of us can tell when we are going through a bad period. Most of us blame others or external events for our misfortunes and in many instances, that is the case. Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia didn’t know that her phone calls were being tapped and even adding that numerological extra “I” to her name didn’t prevent it. The flip side is that wrong-doing, at least in the case of usually honourable people, can begin with an honest mistake that then snowballs out of control. It is possible to catch this snowball to face up to your mistakes, but that takes attention, courage, and a certain amount of wisdom. You could withdraw, publicly admit wrong-doing and change your actions. This, to me, is the most compelling idea in that ancient Sanskrit phrase, and indeed in all of astrology: predictive prevention. Change your behaviour and change future events. US presidential history is rife with examples of powerful men who were going through a bad phase and compounded it through their actions—Nixon’s Watergate cover-up; Clinton’s denials about Lewinsky; Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair. During bad times, your mind behaves perversely. These men could have changed history, and prevented their own downfall, had they caught themselves, as Obama did in the aftermath of his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Although I have admired him from afar, I have encountered Gupta only twice. The first was eight years ago at the home of a friend who threw a book party for me, and had invited the entire “Westchester set”, as we called the CEOs and industry titans who lived in Westchester County, New York. Gupta was there, as was PepsiCo head Indra Nooyi with her husband and daughters, as was the wife of Berkshire Hathaway’s Jain. Dressed in relaxed Sunday slacks, Gupta was charming and gracious to me, a novice author.

The second time was two weeks ago, in Bangalore. I spotted him at the VIP enclave in the Chinnaswamy Stadium at the start of the England-India cricket match that ended in a tie. Gupta was with Parag Saxena, with whom he co-founded New Silk Route Partners, an Asia-focused growth capital fund. Gupta looked as dapper and distinguished as ever. If he was worried about what would transpire the following week, he didn’t show it.

The coming weeks will reveal exactly what the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) knows about this case. In his letter to the ISB, Gupta has stated that there are no transcripts of his conversation with Rajaratnam and that relations between him and the hedge fund manager were “strained” because he had lost his entire $10 million (around Rs45 crore) investment in one of the hedge funds run by Galleon. Gupta will defend himself “vigorously”, and may come out innocent. But in the cut-throat world of global business, he has already been tainted by association and that will affect the rest of his life.

To me, the most haunting question is this: Was this whole thing preventable? If Gupta had caught himself acting out of character (the whole “perverse mind” syndrome that the verse describes), could he have stopped himself from making that phone call? Or does the lure of power and money change people in a fundamental way? Of the two, the latter is the scarier scenario.

For his sake and for India’s, Shoba Narayan hopes that Rajat Gupta is proven innocent. Write to her at

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Manmohan Today 12:56 PM
The author starts the article with a phrase ” word on the street “. Is the autor competent enough to know the happenings on the street. Is she a beat correspondent on Dalal Street / Wall street ? What is her experience with respect to stock market reporting. What made her to masquerade as an expert Street reporter when she absolutely has no experience on business / stock market reporting. Such a blatantly partisan article should not have been published.
1 person liked this. Like Reply

Good_pwa Today 07:20 AM
Still a ‘novice author’, perhaps?! The article I thought was more about the writer attending the book/dinner party with the ‘Westchester Set’ in USA!! Such a pity..
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Hari Parmeshwar Today 12:24 AM
I think columnists must refrain from writing on things which they do not understand. Business is a specialized field and so its followers have perfected the art of being simultaneously crafty one moment and innocent at another moment. Somewhere in the higher echelons of board rooms and flights and five star hotels basics are abandoned. More skeletons will tumble from his cupboard if journalists do some proper investigation rather than holding a candle for him.
Like Reply

Sokradhar Today 12:15 AM
Why would a person who has spent a lifetime and a stellar career keeping client confidences break off from a board meeting to make a call to a hedge fund manager?

Did he? All we know from SEC allegations is that he passed on the tips after conference calls…
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Robert Yesterday 05:57 PM
In the US we call this a slam dunk. The evidence against Gupta is overwhelming.Had there been no audio tapes the evidence could be circumstantial. Both The giver of information and receiver of information knew that he is violating his fidiuciary duty as a board member in divulging non public information.Had Rajratnam not acted immediately Gupta could have been given the benefit of doubt.A million dollars was realized overnight by this tip. i cant understand how anybody can view this differently. How Gupta benefited will eventually be found, swiss bank accounts, money deposited in somebody else’s name etc., a method used by his close friend Anil Kumar at Mc Kinsey.
Like Reply

Surajb Yesterday 02:54 PM
What the…? Nixon etc. Could have changed their behaviour? Demented at best! Watergate vs. Insider trading? Are you kidding me? RG was getting money for his tips, and Raj was busy giving the industry and south asians a bad name. You need to know the depth of this charges- a chance encounter at some mixer doesn’t qualify you to expound nonsense on such a big issue. Just because someone smiled at you doesn’t mean he is a great guy. I can understand the motivation and the surprise… but puhleease!
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Surajb Yesterday 12:59 PM
What the…? This article is demented at best. Comparing Nixon’s Watergate with this insider trading scandal is idiotic. RG was taking money for the tips- that’s a little more involved than returning someone’s call or ‘socializing’. And Raj was busy giving south asians and the industry a bad name. Clearly the author lacks the understanding to appreciate the extent of these charges. Just because you met some corporate hot shot at some mixer a decade ago doesnt make you an authority on the subject!
Like Reply

Chutia Rahi Yesterday 08:08 AM
How was the para on the Westchester set relevant except for showing off the author’s name dropping class? Wannabe!
Like Reply

Rahul Yesterday 03:25 AM
y r u praying for him ,such a biased article from author ,shows the falling standards of indian media ,if a rich man makes a mistake his frnds write column defending him and praying for him ,

nd how is india’s pride related to rajat,its like indira is india or india is indira

such a juvenile piece of writing ,if a poor guy is caught ,he will be in jail froever his life ,this is real india where law is only for poor and rich ppl get bail since ED didnt file case properly

i hope USA punishes him if he is guiltly,USA law is not available for selling like in india,
Like Reply

Jagan Yesterday 12:14 AM
India has nothing to loose even if Mr. Gupta is proved guilty. There are blacksheeps in every country. Perhaps Mr. Gupta’s personal credibility & the institutions that he is associated with will take a beating if he is proved guilty.
Like Reply

Hmmm 03/11/2011 11:53 PM
The only lesson to learn from Gupta’s phone call is Everybody has a price, pay then and they will talk…..and talk like a canary.
Like Reply

Dinesh 03/11/2011 11:53 PM
I don’t get why “oversocializing” is termed as the cause of Mr Gupta’s misdeeds.It is like covering a molestation attempt by calling it “overlusting “. Either you do right or wrong . Information has been leaked causing illegitimate benefit to Galleon.Whether it was leaked consciously or unconsciously ,doesn’t matter.
Like Reply

Anadianant 03/11/2011 11:27 PM
I find commentary in the Indian press, even by “famous” names terribly dis-ingenuous or down-right under-informed. Is that by design or are we just socially engineered to accept slop as a seven course meal? My question is not rhetorical at all.
Like Reply

Alaexin 03/11/2011 11:25 PM
No one going to read your story after a few sentence. Totally Boring
Like Reply

Rajasekhar Reddy P. 03/11/2011 10:54 PM
Shoba, Kudoos to you! well wriiten article. Let God be with him and his family. I thank him and his team with bottom of my heart for services they provided in setting-up ISB in Hyderabad…Rajasekhar Reddy Pochampally
Like Reply

ronin 03/11/2011 10:39 PM
let the law take its course – as of now it looks like deliberate insider trading – he may have made a career of keeping client confidences (of course he was paid handsomely for it) – but perhaps the fees for being an independent director were not adequate reward in his mind and helping galleon to recover the $10 million that he personally lost was uppermost in his mind – vinaaha kaala vipreeta buddhi indeed – we cannot know a man’s integrity from his rise – but we can gain an insight from his fall – let it be a lesson to all the rising stars – its never to late to lose your way on the slippery slope of less than ethical behaviour…
Like Reply

Sgoel31 03/11/2011 09:25 PM
I don’t think this is a case of honest mistake. It is a case of guilty finally being trapped.
Like Reply

Cobra 03/11/2011 06:25 PM
Let people be judged by their power their individual character. That should have nothing to do stereotyping the rest – positively/negatively.
Like Reply

AK 03/11/2011 01:43 PM
“For his sake and for India’s, Shoba Narayan hopes that Rajat Gupta is proven innocent”

Simply ludicrous ! How on earth are India’s fortunes tied to those of Rajat Gupta’s is beyond me. India is much larger that one individual that too who’s professional career has been based mostly in the US. This is the first and only reference I’m seeing to India in this entire episode. I understand that the author knows Gupta but such a ridiculously hyperbolic statement serves no purpose.
Like Reply

Exceller 03/11/2011 12:35 PM
Good Article. However the way the Rajaratnam’s case is unforlding, the news does not look good for Rajat Gupta. None of the US corporations will touch him for any board positions any more. Unfortunately for Rajat, the case is in NY city and not in Hyderabad ;-).Sooner or later I expect people will start withdrawing money from his Hedge fund firm “New Silk Route”. I predicts, this hedeg fund too will fold in a couple of years.
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Can you survive a year without shopping?

My latest Mint piece is a topic that I have been thinking a lot about.

Can you show affection without buying people things? How to use the most precious thing we have– time– to tell the people we care that we care about them.

Here is the Mint article

t was the summer of 1845. The Irish potato famine raged. In Leipzig, after six years of hard work, Felix Mendelssohn’s piercing and pathos-laden Violin Concerto in E minor premiered to a stupefied audience. Sarah Chang,and Anne-Sophie Mutter have all played it, but Janine Jansen’s rendering will make your hair stand on edge with its “double-stopping” notes reminiscent of Carnatic brigas.

Ascetic: Thoreau retreated into a ‘Socratic’ life at 28.Wikimedia Commons
That same year, in Concord, Massachusetts, the 28-year-old son of an American pencil maker bought 14 acres of wooded forest land, built himself a small home and embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living. That man’s name was Henry David Thoreau and the result of his project was Walden, a seminal book that examines the notion of self, solitude, simplicity and living with nature.
Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Thoreau retreated to the woods to pursue the Socratic ideal of the examined life. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” Prodigious ambition for one so young.

Withdrawal and restraint are recurring philosophical themes in pretty much every culture, ranging from Plato’s allegory of the cave, to Vedic philosophy’s injunction about controlling the five senses or Pancha Mahabhootas as a path to enlightenment.

My own experiment with self-control didn’t begin at Walden Pond but in my own home. Over Christmas, I looked into my closet and confronted the eternal feminine dilemma: so many clothes and yet, nothing to wear. This happens to most of us. The Cavalli gown that Niira Radia told Ratan Tata about had never been worn for a reason—it probably looked wonderful on the mannequin but perhaps lost its sheen once it moved to her closet.

What is your relationship with the objects you own? Do you enjoy them or do you tolerate them simply because they are there? Do you enjoy having a lot of things or does it bother you to be surrounded by them? Are you a pack-rat or an ascetic when it comes to the stuff you own?

Those of us who are over 30 can remember a time when we craved certain things. Remember longing for that perfect summer dress or those purple rhinestone sandals that made you feel like a million bucks? Remember saving up to buy your first bottle of Joy perfume by Jean Patou and then savouring every drop? Remember walking by the Fendi boutique countless times, staring at the siren red baguette bag before plonking down several months’ worth of salary for it? Here’s my question: Do you feel the same way about that peacock blue Kanjeevaram sari, polki diamond necklace or Burberry trench coat even now? Or are you over them? Do objects excite you in the same way that they did when you were young?

If you, like me, have become jaded, you have two choices. One is to up the ante so much that it will take your breath away. The other is renouncement, but more on that later. Upping the ante involves buying the most expensive things that you can afford: better wine, fast cars, Cuban cigars, aged single malts, the Jatin Das painting you’ve been eyeing. Throw caution to the wind and see if you can get the excitement back. Buy that Royal Enfield you’ve fantasized about; or that emerald solitaire ring the size of a mini-paperweight.

The other approach is what I am experimenting with. This New Year’s, I have come up with a resolution that I am fairly confident I can keep. For the year 2011, I am off things. I will not buy anything that is non-perishable. I will indulge in all the things I love—vacations, massages, dark chocolate, food and drink—without having to be stuck with clothes, handbags, accessories, you know, all those things that you buy on an impulse and regret later.

It is not so much frugality that is driving this resolution. Rather, it is a desire to recapture my old self and the sense of excitement I felt about buying things. Just as a fast will increase your desire for food, a one-year abstinence from consumerism should make me appreciate an Anupama Dayal dress or even a handcrafted Hyderabadi bangle. That’s my rationale anyway.

Like most resolutions, this one too is tricky. It is not so much about abstaining as much as it is about managing the feelings of loved ones. Unless I am on vacation, I don’t care much for shopping anyhow. But how to tell your beloved aunt or your friend visiting from abroad that you cannot accept the crystal necklace or silk scarf that they have bought especially for you, because you are off…er, stuff? I mean, you can be off meat, garlic or liquor, but how can you be off stuff? Those are the things I am contending with.

The resolution has already started working though. I look at the jewellery I own through new eyes because I know that they will be my only companions for the next 10 months. I can try to wear them creatively, but I cannot afford to get bored with them because they’re all I’ve got. The same goes for clothes, gizmos, furniture, stuff. It’s like an object version of the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages fall in love with their kidnappers simply because they are there. Disposable income is all very well but it also makes the objects that you buy “disposable”, at least emotionally. Constraints, even self-imposed ones, have one great virtue: They force you to value things and not take them for granted. As for me, I am enjoying my year of abstinence. I have fallen off the wagon only once so far for an object that I am too embarrassed to talk about.

Shoba Narayan will be drinking lots of champagne in 2011. Write to her at