Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Exercises in Mastery Part 1: Me

No matter who you are, what you do, you are a master. As long as you are alive, you are a master of something. But the efficacy of mastery manifests only as a degree of impact it has on something. So, reflect over this question:

"How much control do I have over myself, over others around me, and over the environment in which I operate?" 

Those are the three levels of Mastery I would like to explore: Me (self mastery), Them (others around us), and This (mastering the immediate environment).

Let's understand these levels and look into a few simple behaviour changes and exercises to move from one level to the next. These exercises involve vivid imaginations and self prose, so find yourself a calm environment and push yourself to a regular regime. Great results are almost guaranteed.

The exercises are based on metaphors, which is a powerful way to influence our minds. I recommend doing this at least twice a week. Yes, this is a form of meditation but geared to improve specific faculties in yourself. Remember that reading a prescription won't cure you. You need to take the medicine. Reading about body building won't give you those six packs. You need to sweat it out. In other words, action makes things happen. And we are going to explore actions you can take to improve yourself. While these exercises can be done in isolation, I strongly recommend pairing up with someone as you can help each other stick to the regime and make progress.

Important Note: The exercises can be run exactly as suggested, or modified to suit yourself. 

The Most Basic Level: Me

The Nobel Peace Prize winning author Eliezer Wiesel said "Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself". Without mastery over oneself, it is impossible to exercise any amount of control over anybody or anything else.

Imagine a car driver. Unless he can exercise control over his own body, he won't be able to control the car. Drinking, and extreme fatigue take away his ability to control himself and react fast enough, thereby rendering his driving dangerous. Same goes for organizations, life, and career. Only after you have mastered your own self, can you seek to master others. Are you constantly aware of your feelings? Can you consciously insert "thought" between external stimuli and your response, both in words and action? Do you know what it takes to succeed, and do you have it in you? Are you sure?

We must try to develop mastery over ourselves in two dimensions:


Unless you are confident about yourself, you won't achieve a thing. Most high achievers are seen by others as being foolishly over confident. But it is the confidence that enables them to take risks- to go where others don't, and do what others can't.

Exercise 1

  1. Close your eyes, and take a deep breath. 
  2. Think of a few things that you feel threatened by. Say, a strong competitor in your market. Or, a nasty boss. Or, a bad economy. It doesn't matter, just think of a few things that scare you. 
  3. Imagine each of them as huge monsters standing around you, much bigger than yourself. 
  4. Now, in your imagination, place your hands on your hips and look straight into the eyes of each monster. 
  5. Imagine a magical power from your eyes physically diminishing those monsters. The longer you stare at them, the smaller they get. 
  6. When they get as small as cockroaches, go around stomping on them. Jump on them hard and squash those little buggers. 
  7. All the time, be vividly aware of the specific monster that is shrinking and on which you are stomping (if one of them is a person, try to imaging their faces as you do this- it is a lot of fun).


Competence is what we bring to the table, in a given situation or setting. For example, a skilled programmer brings his technical know-how and problem solving skills to the software development team. A teacher brings her subject matter expertise, and presentation skills to her classroom. And so on.
Now, in the context of your specific situation, what skills or competencies are you looking to develop? Refer to my earlier post "Be WISE, Skill-wise".

Exercise 2

  1. Write down three key competencies that you need to develop for yourself 
  2. Look at them, and now close your eyes
  3. Imagine you have achieved mastery over each of those skills. How does it feel? Let the feeling come over clearly and strongly to you 
  4. Prepare a plan to do accomplish mastery over those skills. Include as much detail as possible- who, where and when
  5. Review and revise the plan regularly 
  6. Each time, repeat 2 and 3, before revising the plan from the last time
Another important competence we all need in all walks of our lives is mastery over our feelings and emotions. I strongly recommend this third exercise, because even a small improvement in this direction can have massive impact on our interactions with others and with ourselves too.

There are seven basic emotions quoted in most EI literature:
  • Fear — afraid of something 
  • Sadness — sorrow over an impending loss 
  • Anger — typically arising our of our inability to stop or prevent something from happening 
  • Joy — positive feeling over an impending loss
  • Surprise — an unexpected event
  • Disgust — utter dislike towards something unappealing 
  • Contempt — disapproving something or someone's action, usually without showing respect 

Exercise 3

  1. We are all masters at controlling many emotions to a large extent. But, there are a few that often get the better of us. Anger, for example, is something you might identify as usually hard to control. Or, you might say that Fear has typically kept you from taking important steps towards success. Or, it could be that you show contempt very clearly when you don't like someone's ideas or actions. OK. Go through the seven basic emotions above once again, and identify one emotion that you must learn to control better. 
  2. Now, close your eyes and vividly imagine a situation where this emotion arises strongly. For example, if you are trying to control anger then think of a nasty situation (could be modeled from a past experience) and feel yourself getting angry. You must feel the emotion as strongly as possible. 
  3. Say to yourself "I see <emotionrising in me, but I can put it down. And I will put it down". Continuing the previous example, you might say "I see anger rising in me, but I can put it down. And I will put it down". 
  4. Imagine yourself restraining from a negative response. In this case, imagine that you don't react angrily despite the anger-causing situation. 
  5. Vividly, feel the emotion going away. Smile, if it helps, now. 
  6. There are other ways of doing this: imagine that the emotion is a flame lit in front of you. As you restrain yourself from giving a negative response, watch the flame go smaller and smaller before diminishing altogether. In another form, you might imagine the intensity of the emotion as an irritating, loud noise that gets weaker and weaker as you control your emotional response. Find a form that works for you and repeat the exercise. 
  7. If you must, repeat this with another emotion. But, I suggest you learn to beat one emotion at a time. 

It is important that we actually do these exercises regularly to build our mastery over ourselves. They might appear silly when you read them first. They might appear impossible when you try to do them for the first time. But remember, that's how first time gym-goers feel too. Most of them drop out, but some persist and develop health, fitness and a proud physique. Don't be a quitter on your career. Just a few minutes of self contemplation along the above lines can go a long way. 

Next up- mastering our interactions with others. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The best self-help advice

What's the best self help advice you ever got? I will tell you about mine. This happened over ten years ago, in an airport lobby as I was waiting for my flight. I have a couple of habits that usually make my waits not so painful- I read a lot, and I cannot help but talk to people around me. That day, I was reading a book on Emotional Intelligence, and I also struck a conversation with a somewhat elderly man who was sitting next to me.

"EI...that is a great topic and a useful tool in one's kitty" he said, as I nodded in agreement.

"I have read about EI in the past too" I said "I even attended a seminar about it. I am still not sure how to apply many of the concepts. I am hoping this book would have some practical tips"

He smiled and said "Son, what you've had is education about EI. What you need is training"
I looked at him, perplexed, and he noticed my confusion.

"Look", he said "if you read everything about swimming, would you be able to cross a deep lake?"

"Well, I guess not. I need to have practiced swimming"

"Precisely. Practice. You might have had the education but for results you need to train you body and your mind. Same for EI, or any skill for that matter. Actively do it, until it automatically becomes second nature"

He paused for a moment, I guess, to let me digest this. And continued.

"Take EI, for instance. Do you know exactly how you are feeling right now?"
Honestly, I hadn't contemplated my feelings until that question came about. So, I took a few seconds and replied "Yes. I think so"

"Good, but you must actively keep tab on your own emotions. And actively try and understand the emotions of those around you. It might appear to be a bit of a drag initially, but you will get used to it"

And he proceeded to give me a few exercises to practice EI. His flight announcement was made shortly before mine. Getting up, he gave me a final piece of advice.

"Remember, that this is skill which means it can be gained, but also lost. It needs constant practice even after you become good at it. Sachin Tendulkar still spends hours at the nets every day. So should you"

Since then, I have forgotten his name but, I will remember his advise for as long as I live. Every skill, even soft skills, need practice and exercise. We must train our minds by constantly exercising key skills. And exercise simply means doing something repeatedly and regularly. Let me give an example. We all know that we need to calm our minds when we are in stress. But unless we meditate every day even when there is no stress, and train ourselves to control our minds at will, we won't be able to call that skill when a situation demands it. As a wise General famously said, "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war".

I could read tons of self-help books, and listen to hours of seminars. But unless I practice regularly, that skill will continue to remain foreign. And that, I think, is the best advise I ever got.