On Personal Evolution

If you’ve been following my personal journey somewhat, you know that one of the key drivers is my need to continue to evolve at a very personal and core level.

Since 1996, after graduating from university, I’ve tried to learn one or more new skill each year. This did not start as a fad or a fancy for me. Some background below.

It is a well-known and much-debated fact that schools in India focus more on academics than on extra-curriculars. Things are somewhat better for the current generation in terms of school curricula being broader in scope and less reliant on rote learning, but these are not widespread phenomena.

[Aside: The pressure for academic excellence is such that, on average, eighteen students kill themselves on a daily basis due to exam-related or school-related concerns per the National Crime Records Bureau, 2012 Statistics. This number is nearly double in Kerala, the state with the highest literacy rate. And, when you consider how death reporting and statistical accuracy in India are still flawed, it would be fair to expect the actual numbers to be even higher than these.]

My own school experience, though spread out across four different institutions, was limited to the study of prescribed textbooks and nothing else. As a class topper, I can still recall the single-minded focus with which I attended my exams preparation each year. It wasn’t simply a matter of competitiveness. To this day, for me, the notion of competing with other classmates or workmates or anyone, really, is entirely incomprehensible. Back then, it was simply about not disappointing my parents and teachers. It was a deep-rooted fear of failure rather than any kind of desire or need to win. A fear that manifested itself quite physically. For example, I remember running a very high fever just before the start of my tenth standard Board Examinations despite having spent many sleepless nights poring over textbooks and getting extra tutelage for mathematics and the sciences. Further, my immune system had hit such an all-time low that, promptly after finishing those Board Exams, I contracted a rather painful skin infection on both legs, with a fever and boils from knees to ankles, which had me laid up in bed for at least two weeks. During my final year at University, I put my back out just before the first exam, having to read and write in bed for at least three days. Then, I mixed up exam dates and showed up having prepared for the wrong one (a sympathetic Dean of the School of Engineering allowed a retake due to my overall academic record and my tearful breakdown in his office). There are a few more exam horror stories but more on them some other time. Suffice to say, though I survived my academic pressures, I can, to a large extent, understand and empathize with those many students who see academic performance as the sole purpose of their existence.

There was one other longer-lasting effect. All of this emphasis and focus on academic excellence at the exclusion of everything else made me very ill-prepared for university abroad. When I arrived in the UK to start my engineering degree, there were only about three other women in my batch. While one of them was a “mature” student (in her fifties), the other two were well-rounded teenagers with varied skills in piano-playing, tap-dancing, tennis, singing and so on. More than just pastimes, these interests gave them their unique identities….. a differentiated sense of self, if you like, that, even as they were still evolving and growing into the adults they aimed to be, anchored them in their respective worlds.

Before I continue, let me pose this disclaimer: though I write most of this in general terms, I am aware that there are many Indians who come out of the schooling system here and are even more grounded than many Westerners who have been afforded the best education that their country has to offer them. I am also aware that my own example, though specific enough, is not representative of a vast swathe of Indian society. All that said, how we evolve as human beings is definitely based on how we are educated in our formative years. And, a common socio-cultural problem that continues to dog the Indian education system is the focus on literacy vs education and rote learning vs active learning that leaves many lacking in many important life skills. The inner reserves of learned wisdom and the brain’s neural pathways are just not developed or strong enough to help cope with the challenges and stress that life brings.

Back to my case, then. The sense of inadequacy I felt was even worse when many of my university batch mates, boys and girls, were able to enjoy various activity groups/clubs with a natural ease even if, in some cases, they had simply signed up “for a laugh”. With relief, I hid behind my need to work during non-class hours to pay my rent and other expenses. I reminded myself that I couldn’t afford the time or money for these seemingly-frivolous activities, which varied from fencing to Latin American dancing to rock climbing to knitting. And, acutely stressed about my exorbitant “overseas rate” tuition fees, I knew that I had to work doubly hard to pass out with the best grades possible and land a decent job at the end of it all.

So, I made one quiet promise to myself back then: that, once I had a regular, comfortable salary and had paid off my student loans, I would learn at least one new skill each year. Just for the sheer pleasure of learning and growing after my formal education was long done with. Because, even then, with my limited sense of who I was or wanted to be, I knew that I was in for a long, bumpy road ahead. And, as I now look back on this particular decision, I understand that one liberating aspect that set this particular kind of learning apart from my previous educational endeavors was that, anytime I took something new on, it was without any fear of failure or need to prove anything to anyone.

I graduated in 1996, when the UK and most of Europe was still in a deep recession. Finding a job had been tough. Hanging onto my UK work permit proved tougher. Still, in those first two years after graduation, I managed to take swimming lessons, horseback riding lessons, piano lessons and French lessons. Of these, I had to give up on the first due to an allergy to chlorine. I have managed to retain some of the practices I learned from the second skill. The third skill left me with a lifelong love for Western classical music and the fourth skill has merely gone rusty due to lack of use though I can comprehend enough to follow French news reports and have managed to get by during trips through France in the past decade or so.

In 1998, I moved to the US. And, in 1999, I took up both golf lessons and Latin Dance lessons. Again, though neither lasted as a sustainable practice, I can, today, play through a few holes well enough and long enough to conduct a business meeting, and I can, with a more skilled partner leading, do a passable cha-cha or waltz at wedding parties.

There have been many other such classes over the years: several creative writing workshops, personal investing workshops, financial planning courses, Yoga classes, Pilates classes, tennis classes. Along the way, I was also among the first in my social/professional circles to start blogging, learning a lot of HTML/CSS along the way (this is my fourth blog though I took two earlier ones down and turned the last one into a literary magazine). Of all of these, the practices that have stuck to date are: creative writing, personal investing, financial planning, blogging and Yoga. But, had I not tried so many various activities, I doubt that I would have discovered my natural aptitude for and enjoyment of these latter ones. My life is not only richer (more emotionally and intellectually than materially), but, I have developed that aforementioned grounded and authentic sense of self. And, it is this strong sense of a personal identity that, in turn, freed me up to explore, with a certain strength and confidence, different professional careers in the corporate world too — as an engineer, a marketeer, a consultant and a publisher.

Looking back, I often wonder how it might have been if I’d been able to try out these many activities as a school or college kid. I believe that a) my learning curve for each activity/skill would have much less steep and much shorter, giving each, potentially, a longer life-span and/or a longer achievement span and b) I would have had a stronger authentic sense of self a lot earlier in life and, perhaps, not waited till mid-life to make some tough decisions about where I was headed professionally and personally. I don’t know that I would have been better-equipped to deal with life challenges but I do think that I would have made different, more fulfilling life choices. [Aside: Although, some schools of science tends to suggest that free choice is but an illusion or delusion and that we are, basically, behaving per our pre-conditioning. Whether you accept behavioral sciences or existentialist philosophies as your guide, both, eventually, require a wider awareness and understanding of the world and people around us. More on this some other time.]

Shouldn’t that last be the entire point of our formative and formal education? To cultivate and enable an enduring and evolving wisdom that will lead to good life choices (or, if you prefer, better pre-conditioning)? Sure, how we each define “good” will vary not just from person to person but from life stage to life stage. But, knowing, understanding and making our particular choices (driven as they may be by our socio-economic and socio-cultural circumstances) and accepting that not choosing is also a choice, following another blindly is also a choice — all this can save us all a lot of stress and heartache, right?

So, now, I look ahead to continuing this learn-a-skill-a-year quest. This year, I am planning to go on a one-month Yoga Teacher Training course in Dharamshala, a beautiful town at the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also the official home of the Dalai Lama. Yes, I am indeed fortunate to be able to even consider such an option when many at my stage of life might be struggling to raise families, hold down 9-to-5 jobs and so on. But, all the life choices that I have made thus far, whether right or wrong, have led me to this serendipitous moment of being able to make this new choice. And why this particularly, you might ask? I took some time to think this one through too. First, Yoga is something I’ve been practicing on and off for over a decade now. Second, by taking it to the next level where I’m capable of instructing others in how to engage both mind and body in a holistic discipline, I hope that I will be making a small contribution towards the wellbeing of others.

Stay tuned for more as I plan and undertake this new chapter.

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