Lessons from a Wise Father

I lost my father last October. Unfinished conversations and unanswered questions remain. But as I sit down to reflect on his legacy, I realise that he has left me with lessons to last a lifetime.

In December 2015, my father was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. During this time, my cousin recorded a short interview with him, asking him about some of life’s big questions — happiness, money, work, relationships, anger, honesty.

There is much to learn from my father. He was a wonderful man, and touched the people around him in many ways. A quick visit to his website shows his love for art, talent with the written word, passion for new experiences and an exuberance that lives on till today.

So, in an attempt to capture some his ideas in one place, here are some of the key lessons from my wise father:

The Components of Happiness

According to my father, happiness is the ultimate purpose of life. He would often inquire if my sister and I were truly happy. If we come up short in our responses, he did not hesitate to offer his counsel.

He broke down happiness into 4 elements:

• Health

• Relationships

• Money

• Work

While there is an obvious inter-connectedness between these elements, their individual influence on our happiness runs deep.

In short, he believed that we have to actively pursue our happiness; be vigilant in matters of health and finances; invest in relationships; plan ahead, but relax and enjoy the ride.

For me, this framework for happiness has been fundamental to my well-being — both in terms of evaluating and enhancing it. I have incorporated these elements into my Yearly Reflection, review my health and finances every month, and take some time out every day to connect with loved ones. The results have been great so far!

Finding Meaningful Work

We often lean on our parents to guide us on matters of work. What career should I pick? How much money is enough? Should I take that job that I know nothing about?

In response to this question, he offered a quick checklist:

• Find the right balance between competence and challenge

• If mainstream jobs don’t interest you, find an alternate career path

• Make sure you are always learning

  • Try to work for yourself

On the first point, he believed that work is most engaging when you can challenge yourself, but at the same time perform at a certain level of competence.

To do this, you have to first identify your core competencies, then explore challenges that will push those boundaries. He called it “working in the zone”.

The principle is clear — aspirations are good, but you must choose work that you can regularly accomplish with satisfaction. I’ve tried to incorporate this into my life, and truth be told, it’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

Second, is the important question of how to get to where you want to be, while navigating frustration or drudgery. He made no bones about the fact that he considered corporate jobs to be ‘boring and unsatisfying’. He even went so far as to call it a corollary. As someone who made a living churning out creative ideas, I can see why he would think that.

Even so, he offers some advice to anyone struggling with the mundanity of a corporate job. One option, he says, is to find challenges within that environment — define your goals, think outside the box, acquire skills that are not strictly relevant to your current job. The other option is to leverage your skills in that field, but decouple it from the corporate machinery, which is to say find a system that offers you more freedom and control over your time.

Being a realist, he used to say that perfection is never the goal. Work just has to be ‘reasonably satisfying’. If you can focus on the least irritable parts of your job, you can find fulfilment in other aspects of your life. The key to finding meaningful work therefore, is to stay engaged, build valuable skills and find a path that reflects your philosophy, personality and priorities.

Learning is Everything

Learning, he says, is anything that you have acquired today, which you didn’t have the day before. It requires plunging into the unknown, getting outside your comfort zone.

I find that we often limit our ‘learning selves’ by either expecting too much, or fearing the outcomes. Aware of this fact, my father frames the idea of learning quite differently. To his curious mind, every new experience is an opportunity to learn something — having a conversation with someone, going mountain climbing, or even managing office politics… learning covers a wide spectrum.

Even if things don’t work out the way you expected, at the very least you will discover something about yourself… and that’s learning too.

And how do you know if you have learnt something? He says you can feel it. Learning keeps one young, it makes one feel alive. With that, I’ve resolved to keep learning till the very end.

The Myth of Control

My father had to grapple with an unexpected cancer diagnosis at a fairly young age, so the idea of control (or the lack of it) is central to his life philosophy.

For all his emphasis on planning and organisation, he posits that ultimately we don’t have much control over what happens in life. Your life, he says, is just one of many variables — from war, to an earthquake, to cancer — you don’t really know what will happen next.

The key therefore is to be prepared, as best as you can, for any kind of situation. You can consider a reasonable probability of a particular thing happening or not, but absolute certainty would be foolish.

With that knowledge comes the ability to cope with different eventualities. Of course, for events that are totally unimaginable, he concedes that you can probably never be prepared.

“There are some things you can control, and some things you cannot”. This idea emanates from many ancient Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, be it Stoicism or Buddhism. My father believed in many of these ideas, but what made him special is he also practiced it.

He takes the example of job security. Can you be certain that you won’t be fired from your job tomorrow? Probably not. But if you work hard and develop some skills, it will hold you in good stead. That is the kind of control you have to work towards. In this way, losing a job might be a temporary disturbance, but you can eventually find your feet.

Invest in Relationships

To cushion the impact of a tragic event, my father swears by the human network — what he calls the ‘most powerful resource you can build’. Whether you are facing emotional turmoil, health issues, or simply struggling to find a job, he declares that your most likely savior is someone in your social or professional circle.

So what does it take to build a reliable human network? Real effort. It has to be actively nurtured, he says, and the current tendency to remain aloof, disconnected and distracted doesn’t help. The lesson here is that once you find someone on your wavelength, you have to actively invest in building it up.

And then there’s marriage, which according to my father, is one of the most important of all relationships. After all, your spouse is the person with whom you share the most intimate relationship with on a continuous basis. He even quips that at IIM (from where he dropped out to start an ad agency), they used to say that the two most important things in life are the career you join and the girl you marry.

He offers a few tips on marriage — first, is to simply recognise that no two people can be perfectly matched. There will always be points of disagreements, and to counter it, you have to learn to give each other enough space.

The second is to identify certain areas of commonality. To start with, you must agree on the broader aspects of life. But to really sustain a marriage, you have to focus on the small moments of joy, and try to increase the frequency of such moments with your partner. Whether it is eating out, attending concerts, travelling or raising children — you can actively pursue these activities to build a bond that is ultimately unbreakable.

Focus on the Substantial, Eliminate the Trivial

Another important lesson I learnt from my father is to only focus on things that matter. It helps to ask yourself some questions, like — “What is the essence of the experience?” Or “What am I really trying to achieve by doing this?”

For example, when it comes to social events, he says the important thing is friendship, which can perhaps be built without any elaborate rituals or ‘partying’. Or one could limit eating out in fancy restaurants, because what is actually enjoyable is the company, everything else is incidental.

This lesson also applies to work. If there are two projects to choose from, ask yourself which one has more value in the larger scheme of things. In some cases, you might find that a truly valuable thing comes at the cost of an immediate or temporary reward.

Design a Comfortable Lifestyle

With changing social mores and new domestic structures, he thought it was important for every person to identify his or her needs and comfort level with different arrangements, decide what works for them, and make a plan.

There are some important things to think about. What’s your idea of ‘home’? Do you intend to travel constantly? If so, what is your base? Even if the idea of a ‘permanent place of residence’ becomes obsolete, he says everyone needs a place where they are comfortable doing absolutely nothing. Unless you have an environment that is conducive to that, you feel restless, you fall into an unhealthy spiral of “I need to go out and do something”.

Besides this, you may have to seek out various support systems to help you maximize your happiness, whether it is domestic help, health insurance or a gym.

What he is emphasising here is the importance of building an environment designed to de-stress you. He often spoke about his time in school and college, spent listening to the latest Beatles album, or chatting with a friend about nothing in particular. That is probably why he was always so excited if my sister and I invited friends over and encouraged frivolous activities. Not surprisingly, if you ask my closest friends about their most memorable times in early adulthood, they will certainly mention an evening spent at “Shelter from the Storm” (yes, that’s what our home is called!)

(“Shelter from the Storm”)

Religion and Spirituality

When it comes to abstract concepts like religion and spirituality, my father advocates a similar rule — find what you are comfortable with.

Today’s society presents many options for spiritual fulfilment, such as meditation, which depart from traditional religions. To my father, this is progress. He felt that since many traditional religions emerged in a pre-science era, the knowledge it delivered was cutting-edge at the time, and they helped establish order. But in contemporary society, he suggests that if the time spent on religious practices were instead spent on tackling issues like environment protection or gender rights, it would better reflect the problems of today.

(pondering life’s mysteries)

He accepts that beyond the material world, one might still find the need for something transcendental. His advice here is to dispel any pre-conceived notions, be open, explore different ideas, and only settle for what one feels comfortable with.

Moreover, there is no reason to discard every aspect of a particular tradition because you don’t agree with it. For example, he says, in Indian society the purpose of many religious traditions is to simply bring the community together. So, the goal is to creatively assimilate the elements that resonate with you, based on the context in which it is practiced.

However, the real lesson I learnt from my father when it comes to religion is tolerance. Despite his strong convictions, what I find most admirable is his respect for others’ beliefs. No wonder then he built a pooja room that he personally found no practical use for, in respect of the beliefs and wishes of his wife that he loved dearly.

Fake Anger & Absolute Honesty

I thought my father never got angry. But as his family and friends later recounted stories of a temper in his youth, I realized that, like most people, he had learnt to control his anger over time.

Anger, he says, is sometimes necessary. But anger that you have no control over is never desirable. And since anything done in anger is irreversible, it is often destructive. Only if you are able to observe it as anger can it serve any practical purpose. He even coined a term for it — ‘fake anger’. It’s the ability to shout at someone, if necessary, but with the full knowledge that you can stop it at any moment. He uses clever metaphors to describe fake anger — having a firm grip and never letting the rope slide out of your hand. Or having a coolant ready before you start an explosion.

Along with anger, the biggest challenge is honesty. At the fundamental level, he says, speaking the truth is wise because it saves you the trouble of speaking countless lies later. In practice however, speaking the absolute truth is difficult. Even so, he strongly believed that one must endeavour to tell the truth as far as possible. Said differently, unless you foresee any major negative consequence, it is better to tell the truth because it makes life clutter-free.

The Framework for a Good Life

They say the best way to honour someone’s memory is through your behaviour.

In my father’s words, the key to a good life is simple:

1) Invest in relationships

2) Focus on the significant things, ignore the trivial

3) Take care of your health and finances

4) Be yourself and relax more

I wish I had more time to explore these questions with him, or be able to call him up occasionally for a few words of advice.

While it is true that the physical loss of a loved one makes it difficult to endure, as I sit down to think about what is left and what is lost, I take solace in the fact that his words will remain a guiding force, giving me a system of values that I can depend on for the rest of my life.

(Thanks to Sayak for recording the interview, and to Ipsa and Mama for being my pillars of strength)

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