Category Archives: Productivity

Why Can’t Americans Learn Other Languages?

Around the world, its a well known fact that Americans are some of the worst language learners in the world. Is it nature? Is it nurture?

I have observed four things which I believe make us the way we are:

#1 Childhood and Education

Lets start by examining the typical American childhood. Our education system is focused on well-roundedness, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are some dangerous omissions in our education process which keep us blinded.

In K-12 education, World History is really more of a smattering of “what formed Western civilization.” We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the World Wars, and then a few brief chapters on the Crusades, Buddha and vague paragraph or two on Chinese civilization.

Our education system encourage us to take a foreign language in school, but our overall culture espouses xenophobia. Language is best learned from people, not from books. If we demand that people of other cultures “assimilate” to American culture, we lose out. We have stopped giving them permission to be themselves and turn them into a prop of diversity, rather than a living, breathing person to learn from and exchange ideas with.

 

#2 Our Work Culture

We are career and success oriented, because we are addicted to productivity (not to mention dependent on our jobs for health insurance). This motivation makes us some of the most innovative people on the planet since we are always thinking of solutions to problems, but sometimes makes us poor empathizers and incapable of seeing gray in non-black and white situations.

Americans have a reputation to be communication bulldozers. If I say it louder, clearer and more directly, we expect the recipient to  understand us. The rest of the world doesn’t operate like this, and speaking is not how language is learned- listening is.

Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.

We are amazing speech givers and “communicators” – as long as it is one sided. We are not known to be the best listeners in the world. In fact, we are kind of horrible at it.

 

#3 Media

We Americans are very good at thinking that we “fully understand” something if we have read an article about it on the internet or seen a documentary. We generally have a great deal of confidence and a low ability to read between the lines. If someone is taking too long to get to the point, we tune them out and make a mental note to Google it later. These kind of skills retard the ability to learn language.

We have boxes in which other cultures belong in our entertainment media. We have a dominant style of “white English” which is subtlety expected to be spoken and received on the news and in TV/movies. For the most part, other cultures are often portrayed in the media as being “cute” or “sidekicks” as the white Americans continue to be the heroes. I appreciate TV shows and movies which are crossing those barriers and breaking stereotypes and we need more of these in the future to set the stage for a truly multi-cultural media to take flight.

#4 Geography

Yes, its true we are a large country pretty much isolated from other language groups. This is the most common excuse for being a mostly monolingual country. The comparison is often drawn with Europe, where passing from country to country only takes a few hours. We use this as an excuse for why we can’t learn other languages. The size of our country is a factor, but not the only factor.

Geography isn’t a good enough excuse. We have people from every country in the world living inside our borders. Yet, we have an overall expectation for people to assimilate or self-isolate into their own ethnic communities.

Our neighbors to the South are our most likely influencers. We like their burritos, piñatas and Despacito, but the rest we leave for them to keep. A greater deal of cultural exchange needs to take place as we rub shoulders.

When we do attempt to learn Spanish, it is mostly to “use” it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “oh yeah, you should learn Spanish so you can use it in your job.” Its not a bad idea, but we need to go beyond “using” a language to get our point across, and learn to listen, to understand what is behind the words.

We see Spanish as a language to digest, to use, disconnected from a culture to embody, respect and appreciate.

 

I can almost hear some of you saying- but it isn’t my fault, I’m trying! We are simply not nurtured to be world citizens and our culture makes it difficult. Thats true, but I have great hope for our current and future generations. As we modify our educational systems, work culture and media, we can become more versatile, interconnected and as a result, more truly multi-lingual.

In the near future, our country will not be made up of a white majority. We will be majority minority! How do we want our country to look? Do we want to allow the best of people to come out including their linguistic backgrounds? Or do we continue to force ourselves into a monolingual box?

It won’t happen unless we are intentional. Lets do better together, America!

 

 

 

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The Costs of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The Digital Nomad life is now accessible to more and more as our world gets further connected. We love to follow the romantic blogs and Instagram accounts of happy families who seemingly galavant across the world with hip looking children, drinking coconut water along the way and occasionally cranking out a few hours of work here and there to pay for their travels. They seem so well adjusted and self-actualized. The digital nomad life seems like an ideal lifestyle, and it feels like if you aren’t doing it, there must be something wrong with you.

But there are steep prices to pay for this lifestyle that no one tells you about. 

There are two kinds of global nomads. The first are the ones who do it specifically for the travel, mostly taking it as an extended vacation with some work involved. The goal is to work from a location and observe the local culture, then later return back to home base. This could be the person who travels frequently for work but whose family is rooted in their home culture.

The second variety are who I’m talking about. These are the long term digital nomads who have made it a lifestyle. They either have no home base or have a series of home bases which are not in their home culture. Their family (if they have one) comes with them and they have no plans of “going home” or settling down. They engage the cultures they are in and take root.

What are the long term challenges digital nomads face?

Displacement

The feelings of displacement are very real. Being away from your home culture, extended family, friends and familiar places is extremely taxing, to put it mildly. It sometimes feels like a military assignment without any structure or purpose, and the worst part is, you have no battalion.

The mind can only take so many “unfamiliar” at a time, and is not meant to be constantly readjusted for long, sustained periods. One has to give themselves time to become acclimated and familiar with a new location, set of relationships and way of doing life.

I don’t use the term “displacement” lightly as this term is largely associated with refugee populations.  There is a huge difference between “push” of refugees being forced out of their country and “pull” of the digital nomad life. While the situations are very different, there are some feelings which are common between these two groups. The similarities are in the displacement of starting over, the feelings of confusion and longing for familiarity of one’s homeland.

Losing Yourself

Losing oneself doesn’t happen until you allow yourself to truly be known by the locals. I’m not talking about the digital nomad who roams a different country every three months. This is the digital nomad who finds a place and camps out for an extended time, engages the culture, makes friends and allows themselves to be known deeply by the local people. There is a difference between being an observer in a culture and being an active participant. In becoming an active participant, you give something of yourself. You must loosen some of your roots of your home culture and be willing to let go.

Many nomads travel to “find themselves,” but in order to do that, you must lose yourself first. 

Priorities

In the process of becoming a global citizen, one’s priorities have to be completely undone and reevaluated. In the digital nomad lifestyle, one’s perspective of the world goes from an ant size grass level view to a 30,000 cruising altitude view in a relatively short period of time. The first year of nomadic life, is wildly disorienting. Your family, your identity, what you care about, all gets called into question as you delve into a new way of doing life. What is really important and what is not important, all must be reevaluated in order to learn how to function. And for those who find that sweet spot, things eventually fall into place in an improved order.

Each culture has a grid, a different way of wiring and functioning. At first, you often short circuit in a new culture as you assume the wiring is the same as your culture’s grid. These short circuits can lead to a fire in the grid if one doesn’t let the wires disconnect and be reassembled. That period of disconnecting and ambiguity is highly uncomfortable.  Sometimes in this period, you are barely functioning. Slowly, the discomfort goes away as the new wiring starts to work for you. The old wiring is disconnected and forgotten.  You become an improved and flexible machine. 

Even with the steep costs, living the digital nomad life is worth it. 100% worth every tear, every confusing wakeful night and every piece of lost luggage along the way.

 

Why Being Mothers Makes Women Better Professionals

Before I had children, I had this fuzzy imaginary picture of what it looked like to be a stay at home mother. You drank green smoothies every morning, made homemade cinnamon rolls and read novels while your kids played peacefully with legos in their room, while the rest of the house remained untouched and pristine. It would be so unlike the messes and chaos of the professional world. It would be peaceful and there would be no stress.

Immersing myself in the reality of being a mother of two small children, the deadlines, extreme need for multi-tasking and fast paced environment have not ceased to be necessary, to my surprise.

Spending time with small children all day activates a different part of the brain than sitting in meetings all day does, but I still feel stretched, intellectually stimulated and pushed to my limits at the end of the day.

Being in a high-functioning professional environment trained me to switch gears quickly and utilize short spurts of time for maximum performance. This is not unlike the skills needed for managing children. Let me give you an example.

Professional environment- It is 8am and you’re at your desk fielding a phone call about an upcoming meeting while putting the finishing touches on a written marketing strategy in google docs. Immediately following the call, but only 10 minutes before you are supposed to report on your marketing strategy to your boss, you are called into the CEO’s office where you are asked to give a quick high level overview of your progress on a different project. Meanwhile your breakfast is getting cold on your desk. You also need to book flights for an upcoming conference, submit last month’s expense report and reply to a few important emails before lunch. You are supposed to meet a vendor for coffee at 11, but your day is out of control and you will likely have to reschedule.

Home environment- After a difficult night with a sick baby, your doorbell rings at 6:00am. You are waiting for FedEx to deliver some important documents, so you hop out of bed and rush to the door. By the time you get there, whoever it was, is already gone. The doorbell woke up your toddler who asks for breakfast and tells you his “tummy hurts.” It is still 2.5 hours until school so you get out a puzzle for him to work on, give him some water and transfer your baby to your husband’s side of the bed, so she feels a body next to her and doesn’t wake up. You make a quick cup of tea for yourself and sketch out your priorities for the day including tracking down these important documents from FedEx, attending an HOA meeting and going to the bank to get a cashiers check for a purchase you need to make. A text comes in, your breakfast guest is running late, which only leaves you 20 minutes with her before you have to drop your son to school. While your son is brushing his teeth, you quickly pack his lunchbox while texting a friend who has a question about her rental apartment, and asks you because you are knowledgeable about real estate in that area. The baby wakes up and it is time to feed her. You grab your phone to scan through your email and send next week’s flight itinerary to your friend that you’ve scheduled a visit with, all with one hand since you are nursing your baby. Your guest arrives for breakfast and this is all before 8am.

Both situations require thinking on your feet, changing gears from low level details to giving high level summaries. The brain is exercised in multiple dimensions. In both scenarios, the priorities are continually shifting.

If women are so skilled in muti-tasking and managing shifting priorities, why does the workplace often see mothers as “less valuable employees?” Why should mothers be nervous about being rehired after taking a few years “off?” Is she not a more multi-dimensional thinker after having children? Is she not even smarter and savvy, having ample practice in balancing shifting priorities?

I find that a woman becoming a mother makes her even stronger and an even more dedicated professional. She has a strong desire to focus and has proved she is dedicated to long term projects. She has the ability to think broadly yet focus on the fine details. She can be firm, yet flexible. She can emphasize yet make tough decisions.

Mothers who reenter the workforce should be seen as more marketable and not less.

The Cure for Mommy Brain

I used to wonder what stay at home moms did all day. I was annoyed and frustrated when friends told me they were “too busy” to hang out or return my phone calls because they now had kids and were stuck in the house all day.

Now being a mother of two small children, I certainly feel the pinch in being able to complete certain tasks, such as responding to a sensitive text or committing to making plans with a friend for an outing. But I still sometimes wonder why people tell others they are “too busy.”

“Too busy” is really a poor use of semantics to describe a lack of mind space. What we should say is “I’m too distracted.”

Being a mother of small children is an absolute doozy on a woman’s brain. Even the most efficient women find themselves pulled between multiple tasks at once, which stretches her short term memory capacity to the maximum and her patience to shreds. Being regularly interrupted for years on end breaks the power of her concentration and trains her mind to be constantly multitasking. Then she beats herself up when she can’t focus. This is nothing but a law of nature, yet she fights it.

Yet somehow in our Western culture, we are feed young moms the white lies like they are recent graduates at a cheesy commencement speech –  “the time is now”, “now or never”, “seize the day.”

Why does Western culture insist on torturing young moms by dangling the unrealistic notion that it is easy to have a monetized mommy blog, write a book on your maternity leave or go back for your online MBA while bouncing a toddler on your lap? Enough already.

These things are all achievable, for some people. But for a caretaker of young children, there are actually much better times in life to do certain things like start a business, go back to school, or work on certain areas of your own professional development. This is the time to give your overachieving self a break and focus in on the tasks at hand in the next couple of years – raising healthy human beings.

There isn’t a cure for “mommy brain.” But you can learn to accept it.

So here is a challenge to all my young mom friends. When you’re fed the cultural lies, refuse to digest them and make them your own. Hold onto that extra baby weight for a little bit longer. Push away the lies that you need to be a productive, career woman and have perfectly behaved children, all while baking homemade bread and brewing kefir. It just isn’t gonna happen right now.

You really can’t “have it all.” At least not all at once, right now.

India and the Art of Mindful Lingering

As one walks down any Indian street, you will find one thing which is unmistakably unique to South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures – lingerers.Chai Stall

Men running chai stalls, taxi-drivers, tailors running a store – most of them just waiting around for a customer to come by. Not to mention pedestrians teenage boys crowded around a single mobile phone or aunties sitting on a mat on the stoop of their homes, just shooting the breeze. They’re just kind of all hanging out, not really doing anything. Lingering. Passing the time.

Lingering has been forgotten in the West. Lingering has been replaced with constant stimulation. We can not wait for a single thing. We expect our minds to be constantly occupied, endlessly performing.

America and India are on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our sense of time. In India, time happens to you. In the US, we tell ourselves that we have control of time. We schedule it, put it into our calendars, find every possible way to avoid wasting it, and define our lives by fighting against it.

On one side, there is the temptation to leave no margin in life and being constantly busy. Whereas on the other side, there is the temptation to leave too much margin and be constantly in a state of ease and boredom.

These are two extremes where I believe, it may be best for us to fall somewhere in the middle.

We can see our value even by the words we invent. In the West anti-aging, productivity and quality time are concepts we all understand. Anyone who has visited South Asia has an understanding of “time pass.”

indiantraffic

Environment and Capacity for Chaos

In India, the noise level and sensory overload is unlike any you will see anywhere else in the world. However, I would argue that the mental clutter, distraction and constant activity of the West is just as harmful and possibly more difficult to shut down. Perhaps both cultures react with the way they spend their time because of the atmosphere surrounding them.

In India you will find people sitting and spacing out while the whirlwind of noises, traffic, animals and constant clutter of activity. In the West, you will find people in silent corporate offices, headphones in, with a mind racing 100mph with tasks, meeting requests and project deadlines. The human mind can only handle so much clutter, yet we also seek it out. We do our best to balance the equilibrium of “busy vs idle.”

 

How do we create the “linger factor” in our lives? 
chai

  1. Expect the unexpected – because you know deep down that life throws curve balls at you.
  2. Unschedule your schedule – it might feel terrifying, but spontaneity will do you some good.
  3. Diversify your friend group – when you hang out with people of different cultures, maybe they will be constantly late, will stay at your house “too long” or will take 2 hours to eat a meal at a restaurant. Maybe they will stretch you. And maybe you will love it.

 

 

Three Tips for Succeeding Professionally in India

Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.

Indian White HandshakeAs a Westerner, one of the biggest struggles I had was figuring out how to navigate personal and professional life while remaining in the appropriate frame of mind for the moment or context I was in. What are the unspoken rules of professional life in India? Where are the invisible lines of work vs play, colleague vs friend, or manager vs peer?

Here are three tips which I’ve learned through my own mistakes in my personal and professional life:

1) Know your place in the Hierarchy

Have you been hired as a contractor for 6 months to do training? Are you an employee of a large company sent for a long term project? Are you a manager of people? No matter what your place, it is essential to find out who is “above” and “below” you as far as the corporate hierarchy is concerned. If you’re a Westerner like me, you probably cringe that I’ve just written “above” and “below” in this way. Western companies are great at pretending that we are all equal and that people should feel open to knock on the CEO’s door at any time. In Indian companies, this hierarchy is simply acknowledged and consistently reinforced according to who has more power. This hierarchy is not written anywhere on paper, and others are unlikely to give you an organizational chart. This is discovered through observing others, asking indirect questions from other staff, and finding out who you are able to go to and ask direct questions to when you are confused.

One of the most important ways you can immediately implement this is by learning who to address as “Sir” and “Maam.” These are basic manners in the office place, and you may be surprised to know that even someone just a year older than you, or someone in a slightly different position than you could be cause to call them “Sir.”

Also learning to interpret age is important (don’t be fooled by a thick mustache on a 23 year old). Even though the person who picks up the garbage or the person who brings chai might be 60 years old, it is not appropriate to call them “sir” or “maam” in an office context, but it could be nice to express gratitude and respect for them as a person by adding “ji” to the end of their name. This is another example of acknowledging hierarchy in an appropriate manner. There are endless rules of hierarchy and where people’ s place social status puts them in how they relate to you, and how you relate to them.

You have even more responsibility if you are a boss or manager to respect the hierarchy. You must realize the power that your words have. People may just bend over backwards even at your slightest suggestion. You are not seen as an “equal” but as a superior. Even though you may relinquish this power and attempt to implement a flat structure, your employees have it hard wired in them to put you in your proper place in the hierarchy.

2) Don’t take cues from other foreigners

I made this mistake of taking cues from a male boss who was about 10 years older than me, a clear authority figure in the office. I was in a role where I was just an employee of the company, around average age of the other employees and an unmarried female. How I addressed other employees and colleagues needed to be different than my boss. I made the mistake of picking the wrong role model given my age, gender and position in the office. He had figured out behaviors that worked for him, but would not work for me.

I also made the mistake of mimicking the dressing style of my friends who were not in the workforce, when I should have been watching what other working women of my age and marital status were wearing instead. I showed up to work in everything varied from ripped jeans to a saree. In India, what you wear speaks volumes about who you are, where you come from, and what you do. This is infinitely more difficult for women than men. I made the common mistake by dressing either too casual or too “wife-like.” Selecting the right amount of jewelry, applying the right kind of makeup (if any at all), wearing the appropriate length and style of clothing, with appropriate texture and fabrics is all a matter of great delicacy. If you work for a larger company in a metropolitan area, they may have clear guidelines on what to wear, then you don’t have to wonder like I did.

3) Learn where you fall on the personal scale of society

The biggest factors your place on the societal scale, are your age and marital status.

Age – If you are a young person, you may think you automatically deserve respect based on your merit or achievements. The fact of the matter is, older people always know best in Indian society, regardless of either of these. Indians know that no matter how old you are, there is always someone in the family older than you, who will have the final say. You are always a youngster in someone’s eyes. Seeing oneself in the context of your family (including ancestors), your caste or religious group is an integral part of the Indian mindset. Even if you don’t belong to an Indian family, figuring out who deserves respect because of their age alone, is an imperative part of successfully understanding where you fit on the personal hierarchy.

Marital Status – Simply put, being married equates being an adult. Married life is one of the ancient philosophical ideas of Hindu Stages of Life and is still very much in practice today. For example, even if you’re 45 and unmarried, people may not know where exactly to place you in society. This is a invisible social system, yet highly important and envelops all parts of life.

Other qualities which you may be judged on while ranking on the personal hierarchy scale:

  • what kind of a career you have
  • what kind of careers your parents and siblings have
  • your basic ability to speak politely to elders
  • your physical appearance (height, weight, tone of skin, good looks)
  • how nicely you dress/ quality of your jewelry and accessories

Becoming friends with a few key people that you naturally connect with in the office is a helpful both personally and professionally. Getting to know an Indian family in the home environment by attending festivals and family events will help you understand important aspects of personal life which affect each professional outside the walls of the workplace. You will gain insight on new parts of Indian life which help you understand why people do what they do. This is not only important for your professional life, but your overall survival in the country.

Ways to master this:

Find an informal mentor of your age and gender. Find ways to learn their lifestyle and kind of copy them until you’re enculturated enough to have confidence in your own ability to make culturally accurate judgements. By spending time with various types of people outside the office will help you understand more of where you fall on the social scale and therefore, the professional scale.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but find a trusted friend to make them with. Find that special friend to whom you can ask questions. without being judged.

Other applications: The workplace, is not the only time I’ve run into troubles with these three challenges. These rules also apply in organizations like religious clubs or social societies.

Lessons on Global Competition from India

Even with the deepening of global business relationships and the influx of immigrants coming into the US, many American professionals still don’t realize how globally competitive markets really are. The past few years in the US, we’ve felt the pain of a tight job market. And I’m not convinced that my generation is prepared for the next wave of competition from abroad.

In the small town I grew up, it seemed we all deserved to be handed jobs once we graduated high school. If someone lost their job, it was NEVER their fault. And if someone’s job was outsourced, uh oh! Not fair!
Like my mom always used to tell me “Jessica, the world is not fair. Get used to it.”

But maybe the world is more fair than we think….

With the global nature of markets and the ease of communication between East and West, maybe we should seek to learn from our peers across the world who are putting in extra study time, specializing from a young age and sacrificing greatly to get ahead.

Expectations

When I lived in India, I noticed a few major differences in the way that middle class children are raised in comparison to American kids. Especially regarding the expectations that their parents have for their academic performance.

  • In America, we want our kids to be involved in activities which they enjoy. Allow them to explore their creative and athletic abilities.
  • There are no extra-curricular activities in India. After school kids go to ‘tuition’- which are extra study sessions.
  • In America we want our kids to be ‘well-rounded’.
  • In India, parents want their kids to be specialized in a steady field which guarantees employment in the future.
  • In America we want our kids to be in at least one competitive sport, and some parents push their kids to perform and compete. Parents participate in the support of athletic events and show ‘team spirit’.
  • Indian kids don’t really play sports unless its cricket (typically only boys). Girls and boys also play some light badminton on the roof of their house. They stay in their neighborhood within yelling distance of their mother. The only ‘team spirit’ that they feel is for Indian Cricket.
  • In America, the ranking and division of the sports teams are a major sway factor and reason for fame of a particular school.
  • In India, schools are known only for their academic quality and ranked accordingly.

Indian kids and American kids are happy. It all depends on cultural norms and the way the parents formulate and communicate expectations.

Desire for Security

One of the possible explanations for this Indian focus on academia is the desire for security. In America, many middle class families have grown up with a sense of financial security for generations. Our grandparents remember what it was like to live a life of uncertainty (due to the Depression), but our parents may have never been directly affected by severely tough times.
In India, the possibility of poverty  is not a distant reality. It is right here, right now. Indians are forced to face this every day as beggars and slums confront them on every time they cross the street. Striving for financial security is a must and a driving factor for most middle class Indian families.

So what can we take away from this?

The world will only become more competitive.
I think we will start seeing trends of American families who give their children a bit more guidance in academia. Clearly setting expectations of which fields they hope their children will go into. Parents will creatively find fun ways where kids can be involved in academia outside of school. Parents will allow time for sports and video games, but will set more stringent boundaries on the child’s free time.

We need to make sure that kids who grew up in America are ready for the wave of competition that is about to come. Instead of feeling entitled to a job, American kids need to be prepared to compete with peers like most middle class Indians, who started doing computer programming in 3rd grade.