Sunday, March 7, 2010

Four Fabulous Teachers - #4: Srikumar Rao

Got happy?

This afternoon (despite the absolutely perfect weather outside), I got into one of my dusting frenzies.  It started because the brilliant light reflecting off my computer screen brought the smudges and particles into broad view.  Off I went for a soft cloth!  After the computer was thoroughly wiped and shined, I noticed the bookcase nearby, also afflicted with its own case of dust.  Up and down the rungs I went.  In the middle of my book-spine wipe-downs, I noticed a hard cover edition of "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert that I bought at a small bookstore in Brooklyn a few years ago.  I remember being so struck by the title, that I opted to purchase the book and carry it around all day with me.  It had a nice, clean, white cover, featuring a bright bowl full of cherries, overturned (yes, I am a total sucker for nice book cover designs).  On the front cover, prominent authors such as Steve Levitt (Freakanomics) endorsed it with "Think you know what makes you happy? This absolutely fantastic book will shatter your most deeply held convictions about how the mind works" and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) with "A psychological detective story about one of the great mysteries of our ought to read me."

Oh, you don't worry Malcolm, I trust you.  But this blog post isn't about Daniel Gilbert's book.  Instead, it is about the topic of happiness in general and how it led me to Srikumar Rao, someone I am more interested in at this moment.

Gosh, I thought while continuing to dust the bookcase, what's with the topic of happiness these days?  In the last 5 years, I feel like I hear of a new book with happiness in the title practically every other month?  To see how accurate my predictions were, I did a simple search on for products with "happiness" in the titles.  The result? 720 items. 

Wow, I thought, with all those books on happiness out there, it's pretty clear many are in search of it, or want to purport they can deliver it. But how can you know which thinkings are solid?

Then I found this.

I will give you a brief synopsis on this talk, but it is probably much better if you simply take 12 minutes of time to listen for yourself.

In this talk, Srikumar Rao shares with us that we spend most of our lives learning to be unhappy, even though the very thing we are striving and searching for, is to be happy.  He delivers this message by starting off with the question: what do you have to get to be happy?  A fair question. Then he asserts: anything you can get, you can un-get, remarking that this is not a good thing, yes (he cites wall street, hehe)? By setting up the listener with the natural thought process regarding happiness - if I do X, then I will be happy, if I have Y, then I will be happy, and basically a model of - If this, Then that.  A pretty common human pattern of striving for happiness.

An example.  If I get promoted to XXX position, then I will be happy.  Or, if I marry XXX, then all will be glorious.  Here, Srikumar says we are investing totally on the outcome, and not the process.  Yet, he explains, because we cannot control any outcome, if we invest solely in an outcome, and we miss the mark, we will be left feeling like we failed, or even if we attain the outcome, we will spend our lives simply changing the If, and never appreciating, or accepting the journey.  This thought processes, or as he calls it, a mental model, is flawed.

Instead, consider a time when you were out doing something, and all of a sudden, you were caught up in a precise moment, where you were overcome with the beauty of a particular sight.  In this moment, all was right, and you were struck.  In this moment, Srikumar believes we are accepting things just as they are, and we are happy.  He believes this is actually an innate condition for us, but most of the time we don't accept things as they are, and we spend all our time "striving with might and maim to make things different - we are not accepting it and when we are not accepting it we are buying into the 'if - then' model." What we don't realize is all the problems we have think we have are actually equally perfect.

What to do instead? Invest in the process, not the outcome.  If at the end of things, we are successful, wonderful. If we are not successful, also wonderful. If we reach what we had striven to do, we are at a new point, and if we do not reach what we have striven to do, we are also at a new point, and we can select another outcome and keep going.

"Focus on the outcome, but invest completely in the process." Srikumar Rao

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