Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

This week I was gratified to read that VS Ramachandran, my favorite science author figured in the list of top 100 public intellectuals by an American magazine. I have read two of his books, “Phantoms in the Brain” and “The Emerging Mind”. They are absolutely brilliant. Although I have done a couple of posts based on his writing, I have never been able to do a review of his books. I always felt that a single page write-up would not do justice to the broad spectrum of mind blowing ideas he presents in his books.


My friend, Sukumar also quoted him in his recent post Building a Belief System Part 2 – What holds us back?. These inspired me to re-read “Phantoms in the Brain”. It was as delightful as the first time. I thought I will attempt a review, although I do so with apprehension because I am still not sure if I can do justice to this absolutely amazing book.


V S Ramachandran is an eminent neuroscientist who has done pioneering work in the area of Phantom limbs. Many amputees, even after their limbs are removed still feel as if the limbs exist. They feel pain and movement in these limbs.  In this book he talks about this phenomenon and many other strange neurological disorders. He claims that these disorders help us gain great insights into the working of normal brains.


The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to Phantom limbs. He recounts some fascinating stories of amputees – Tom,  whose Phantom (non-existent) arm could wriggle its finger, reach out for objects and pick them up. Mirabelle, who born without two arms yet felt a vivid phantom which she felt was 6” shorter than her artificial arm. What is even more interesting is how Dr.VSR identified the neurological cause of these Phantoms and helped cure a few of them using simple devices.


An even more fascinating case was that of Diane. She had suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning that left her completely blind. When her physician was evaluating her, he stumbled upon something really unbelievable. Although she was technically blind, she was able to grasp objects and perform complex activities without being aware of it. For example, if you ask her to post a letter in a mail box, she will have no awareness of seeing the mail box or the letter, yet she would be able to orient her letter and post it perfectly into the slit. This phenomenon is called “blindsight”, It is as if a zombie within you is performing these functions without you being aware of it. As many as 30 regions in the brain are involved in vision and only a few of these regions produce the consciousness or awareness of sight.


Then there is this strange mental disorder called “hemi neglect” which occurs in patients who suffer from right brain stroke. Patients with this disorder tend to neglect what ever lies to their left side including their own body. They will comb only the right half of their heir, apply makeup to only the right half of their face, will eat food only from the right half of their plate, will bump into objects that lie in the left half of the vision. Neglect is not same as blindness. If you draw their attention to the left side they will respond. Another disorder in patients who suffer paralysis on their left half is “Denial”. Even normal human beings suffer from denial however these patients have extreme case of this disorder. They refuse to acknowledge that they are paralyzed. They claim that they can move their left hand and perform complex functions like tying a shoe lace. Most often, these patients are considered psychiatric cases. Dr.VSR provides neurological explanation to these disorders.


He says about his experiences with these patients “What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death”.


The book covers many other interesting disorders like Carpgras delusion where the patient claims that his close relatives like father/mother/brother are imposters and Cotards syndrome where the patient believes he is dead and he can smell the rotting of his own flesh.


In the last few chapters he discusses profound concepts. What causes spiritual experiences? Do we have a god module in our brain? What is consciousness? What is the nature of the self?  VSR tries to explain these deep philosophical questions in neurological terms.


I like to end my review with VSR’s thoughts on why he thinks neurology is so interesting. Because it has the potential for the “greatest revolution in the history of human race – understanding ourselves.”

“There is something distinctly odd about a hairless primate that has evolved into a species that can look back over its own shoulder and ask questions about its origins. And odder still, the brain can not only discover how other brains work but also ask questions about its own existence: Who am I? What happens after death? Does my mind arise exclusively from neurons in my brain? If so, what scope is there for free will? It is the peculiar recursive nature of these questions – as the brain struggles to understand itself-that makes neurology fascinating”



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Hello everybody,

I apologize for the long gap in my writing. I have been going through a rocky phase with respect to my health. I have not been able to write as regularly as I wanted. Thank you for commenting regularly and keeping my blog alive.


Ever since the story of Josef Fritzl broke out, I have been reeling under shock. I am sure most of you must have heard this story of a 73 year old man who imprisoned his 18 year old daughter in cellar and sexually abused her for 20 years. He bore 7 children with her, one of whom died. He had been sexually abusing his daughter from when she was 11 years old. I find it so impossible to comprehend how a father can do this to his own daughter.


I like to believe that he must be completely mad and these kinds of incidents are not something which occurs commonly. However, this illusion was shattered when I spoke to my sister about this incident. She is a doctor and used to work in a rural hospital during her internship. She was not at all shocked by the story. She said that fathers abusing daughters and brothers abusing sisters is very common in rural areas. She also said that she does not believe it is limited to rural areas. In urban areas people tend to be more informed and easily avoid getting caught.


My dad, who also is a doctor, joined the conversation and the stories he told me made my stomach churn. A gynecologist told him about a 11 year old girl who came to her. She was bought by her parents because she was throwing up often. When the doctor examined her she found that the girl was 8 months pregnant. On further enquiries she found that her own brother was the father of the baby. What was even more shocking was attitude of the parents. They discovered pregnancy on 22nd Dec and 25th was Christmas. They would be visiting their relatives and they wanted the pregnancy terminated before that so that their daughter would be presentable when the guests arrived. From what I understood, they went through some illegal procedure which involves injecting something into the uterus that kills the fetus and then removing the dead fetus.


Another friend of my dad told him about a young girl who was accompanied by her father. She had scars on both her hands like someone had slashed them with a knife. He requested the father to step out and tried to find out what the problem was. Apparently, her mother had passed away a few years back and since then her father has been sexually abusing her. The doctor called the father back and confronted him. Can you believe what that man said, “She is my fruit and I can enjoy her. It is my right”


 To me, relationship between father and daughter is very sacred. If you cannot trust your own father how can you trust any other man? Is it just me or are you also shocked by these stories. I really want to understand why things like this happen. If it is such a common occurrence then surely there must be something fundamentally wrong with our society.


Amit has some interesting insights into the subject. He asks if we should make concensual incest legal. Read his post more more details 


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I received very interesting comments on my previous post, The Fountainhead. . Although I have read the novel many times, these comments gave me a whole new insight into Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Absolute capitalism, without any governmental intervention is one of the core principles of Rand’s philosophy. While capitalism is one of the best systems we have today, it is not without its flaws. I had mentioned about difference between Adam Smith’s and John Nash’s theories to highlight this point. Sukumar requested me to elaborate on this and I am doing this post in response to his request.

Adam Smith is considered the father of economics. In his book written in 1776 titled “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, he introduced a concept called invisible hands. The basic premise of his theory was that if each person worked towards his self-interest then the interest of the entire world will be served.

Smith says“….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” If you notice, this is pretty much what Rand says too, altruism for its own sake does not serve humanity as much as self interest does. This is also the foundation of capitalism.

For example, I run a company, I want to maximize profits and ensure its survival. So I produce the best quality goods at the lowest possible prize thus the consumers are benefited. In a free market, I cannot afford to have very high prices because I will soon be obsolete’ed by competition, I cannot compromise on my quality because I will lose my customers. On the face of it, it looks like a perfect system. In fact Adam Smith thought of it as a work of god. His invisible hand was a metaphor for the way god administered the universe in which human happiness is maximized and also the interest of the world was served.

Those of you who have watched the movie, “The Beautiful Mind” would have heard of John Nash. He is an expert in game theory and he formulated a theory for a category of games called non-zero-sum games. Game theory was founded John von Neumann, to understand the general logic of strategic interactions. Its application can range from war strategies to pricing. Before John Nash most of the theories were centered around zero-sum games, interactions where one person wins and the other loses. There is absolutely no benefit in collaboration. Examples could be of two countries at war or two companies fighting for the same contract. Game theory uses mathematics to identify the best strategy to be employed in such situations.

From an economist’s point of view, most of the situations are not zero sum. In most instances there is some benefit in collaborating. Even in war situations, diplomacy has a role to play. Before John Nash there was no good models for non-zero-sum games. The most famous example of a non-zero-sum game is the prisoner’s dilemma (I have written about it in this blog and how Dawkins applies it in his theory of evolution).

According to Nash, the best choice for any player would depend critically on what he thinks the other players might do. You would notice this factor in the prisoner’s dilemma too. Take for example, two companies are bidding for the same contract. All things being equal, what would each party do to maximize their chances; try to underbid the competitor? We have seen this situation is ugly prize wars, which harms the players in the long run. A better thing to do would be to form a cartel and artificially fix the prizes. Some thing of this nature happened in India last year, even though the duty on cars was reduced in last year’s budget, the manufacturers did not pass on the benefit to the customers and instead chose to increase their profit margins. What was even more amazing was that it was happened during a time when the competition so stiff. New brands and models appeared every day.

In short, Nash concludes that the optimal choice that a person makes, given his beliefs of other people’s choices, may not always serve his best interest or that of the society.

One of the reasons I believe that absolute capitalism without any checks and bounds will not serve the interest of the society. Does Adam Smith have any answers for global warming?

If you want to know more you can refer to the following sources

John Nash 1 | 2 |

Adam Smith 1 | 2|

Note :
This a layman’s understanding of the theories of these great men. Please feel free to correct me if I have made a mistake.

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I had heard so much about this book, yet what prompted me to buy it were not all the discussions that I have heard. I bought it after I read the first chapter. It was really cool and reminiscent of Tipping Point. Maybe because it began with a discussion on the drop of crime rate in NewYork city and Tipping point also had an elaborate discussion on this subject.

 When I closed the book, I could clearly pin-point how they were different. Their main difference lies in the fact that Malcolm Gladwell is a writer whereas Levitt&Dubner are economists. They are so much in love with their data, they just don’t seem to know were to stop. Especially the last chapter, where they examine the correlation between the name of an individual and how successful he is, they go overboard with the data. In the final analysis, Freakonomics comes across as more convincing (After reading both the books, I am now convinced that abortion and not ‘broken windows’ was the cause of the drop in crime rate in New York), but Tipping Point is a much more interesting read.

To me, personally the most interesting insight from the book was “What makes a perfect parent”. A study was conducted by U.S department of education called “Early Childhood Longitudinal Study”. It arrives at a correlation between child’s personal circumstances and his performance in school. Out of 16 factors that were analyzed 8 were shown to have a strong correlation and 8 did not have any correlation. You would be surprised. For example, there is strong positive correlation between how the child performed to the fact that there are lots of books in his home. However there seems to be no connection between his performance and whether his parents read to him everyday. What I found most encouraging was the fact that it did not matter if the mother was working or quit her job after child birth. As a working mother, who had to deal with the guilt of leaving my son and going to work from when he was 3 months old, I was really thrilled to learn this.

In the final analysis, the authors conclude, what you are as a parent matters more then what you do”.

Another insight from the book which I found very appealing; The fact that people are inherently honest and good. Being a compulsive believer in the goodness of mankind, I found this conclusion very heart warming. This finding was from a unique business model which an economist Paul Feldman adopted for his business (you can read the full extract from the book here). The authors say that most economists will find this surprising but not Adam Smith, one of the pioneers of contemporary economics. In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith writes “How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it”

On that feel-good note, let me end my review.

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This is a true life story, so fantastic that most people would find it hard to believe. Dr.Brian Weiss is a psychiatrist by profession. He is a graduate from Columbia University and Yale medical school. In this book he recounts his experience with a patient, Catherine who was suffering with chronic anxiety attacks. When traditional methods of therapy failed, he tried hypnosis on her. During these sessions she recalled her past life experiences and even the time in-between her lives. Her recollections were so vivid and revealed information she could not have known at all, that he was convinced that they were definitely from the past lives. 

He started researching on this phenomenon to get a better understanding of what was happening to Catherine. He studied the works of Dr.Ian Stevenson, another psychiatrist from Virginia University, who had collected over 2000 experiences of children who had memories of their past life. Some even exhibited ability to speak languages that they were not exposed to (xenoglossy). He also found references of reincarnation in the old and the new testament. The Roman emperor Constantine deleted these references because he felt that this concept would weaken the growing power of the church by giving humans too much time for salvation. 

More than her recollections of her past lives, what I found amazing was her messages from time in-between lives.  She heard messages from whom she termed ‘masters’ and they provide some profound philosophical insights. “Our task is to learn, to become god-like through knowledge. By knowledge we can approach god”. This sounded so much like Vedantic statement, “gnayanad eva kaivalyam – knowledge alone can lead to god-hood” 

In another encounter with the masters, Dr.Brian gets to hear a message from his dead son and father. She was able to provide information about them which no one else could possibly know. She revealed the Hebrew name of his father, the heart condition due to which his new born son died and the reason why Dr.Brian chose psychiatry. She also said that his son was born and to repay his parent’s debts. 

These experiences made Catherine increasing psychic. She was able to remember her past life recollections; however she was not able to remember the in-between states. What was remarkable about Catherine’s knowledge according to Dr.Brian, which defied all other explanations, was that it was not only detailed and specific but beyond her conscious capacity. Within three and a half months of her first hypnosis session her symptoms virtually disappeared. Here is another very Hinduism-like message from the masters “We have debts that must be paid. If we have not paid out these debts then we must take them to another life…” 

Having been associated with teachings of Hinduism from childhood, I did not find this story hard to believe. Unless Dr.Brian is blatantly lying there seems to be no other explanation for this phenomenon. But then why would he lie? He was taking a great professional risk by writing this story. He was a respected psychiatrist and the chairman of Psychiatry at a medical center in Miami.  He had lot to lose and nothing to gain by telling this story.

  Dr.Brian Weiss talks about this in the preface to the book, “It took me four years to garner the courage to take the professional risk of revealing this unorthodox information. Suddenly, one night, I felt the need to put this down on paper…. I knew that no possible consequence I might face could prove to be as devastating as not sharing this knowledge… I thought of my old Hungarian grandfather who died when I was a teenager. Whenever I would tell him I am afraid to take a risk, he would lovingly encourage me by repeating his favorite English expression: Vat the hell”

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What can I say about Kite Runner that has not already been said. It is a beautiful book; there can be no two opinions about that. The story is about two friends Amir and Hassan bought up in turbulent Afghanistan. Amir is a son of a rich businessman and Hassan in the son for his servant. It is a simple and a sensitive story of the relationship between these two boys. 

There are many layers to the story. There is Amir’s battle with his cowardice, his confusion at the double standards of the society he lives, his struggle to be a good son and his guilt at being a bad friend. Then there is a country deserted by the world, caught in a time warp and struggling with its grim realities. But to me, more then anything else, The Kite Runner is about two strong emotions. Emotions that are so universal, that every adult can relate to them. I wonder if this is the secret of its appeal. Maybe each of us is left with a feeling of having been there. 

First, it is about nostalgia. All of us have experienced the longing for things of the past. Although they may not have been perfect there is something absolutely magical about them. But can life ever remain the same. They say you can’t step into the same river twice. I think it is true about a place too. Everyday something changes. Slowly and relentlessly, the goddess of time destroys the old and replaces it with new. That’s why, even if we were to go back to our old school or our childhood haunts, they don’t feel the same. The magic seems to have gone. That’s why we can understand Amir’s longing for his kites even as he enjoys the security of an American home. When he returns to Kabul and feels shock at the way it has changed, you can experience it too. Not as a third person empathizing with a stranger’s tragedy, but as someone who has been there. Who has felt it, may be not in such a dramatic fashion, but felt it all the same. Felt it when you saw your granma’s home being torn down to make way for an apartment, when you saw a happy friend of your childhood broken by hardships in life, when you heard about the death of your favorite teacher….  

Another predominant emotion in The Kite Runner, is guilt. That is one feeling that Amir lives with throughout his life. He watches his friend being raped by bullies and does not go to help. He finds it impossible to live with this guilt. He just wants to banish the object of his guilt from his life. He falsely accuses Hassan of stealing money and sends him out of his house. It gave me a new insight into the nature of meanness. What prompts people to me mean, cruel, unkind? Maybe it springs from unhappiness, an underlying sense of inadequacy. Can a truly happy person ever be cruel?

For the rest of his life Amir is haunted by guilt. It makes him a better person, a more accepting person. He marries a lady, who had eloped with another man and returned in dishonor. For an Afghan, it is a huge sacrifice. He also realizes that his father, whom he thought was infallible, had committed what was according to him, the greatest sin. It makes Amir wonder if that’s what made his father the person he was – a great human being, capable for huge generosity and courage. Maybe that’s why all religions of the world place so much emphasis on sin. Perhaps, the awareness of our fallibility makes us better human beings.  

When Amir returns home with the son of his friend, Hassan, you realize that finally Amir has found his freedom. What can be more liberating then a heart without burden? In the last lines of the book, as he runs after the kite, you feel that Amir is well on his way to re-discovering the lost magic of his childhood. 

Footnote: I read this book last weekend. Coincidentally, two of my friends have read the book around the same time and written about it in their blog. You can read Ganesh’s great review here and Sarawathi’s take on how the book influenced her, here.

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I bought this book because I loved Tipping Point but it kind of disappointed me.  To be fair, it would be hard to live up to a book like Tipping Point. All said and done, Gladwell is an amazing writer and although there are no earth shattering insights in the book, you still don’t feel like abandoning it.

Blink talks about the power of flash decisions, those which are not thought out, but just happen. It mainly deals with how intuitive decisions take place. They are very powerful yet sometimes go terribly wrong. Here are some interesting thoughts from the book.


Let us say I ask you to recall the face of a waiter who served you last time you went to a restaurant. Now if I ask you to pick this person from a police line-up would you be able to do it? Apparently you would. But, suppose I ask you to take a pen and paper and write down as much detail as you can of the person. Apparently you will do lot worse in picking the face from the police line-up. Verbally describing a face impairs your ability to recognize it!!!


Here is an interesting Psychology test to help you understand the power of the subconscious. In the table below, assign each name to a category


 Male                                                     Female

——–                        John                 ———

——–                        Bob                  ———

——–                        Amy                 ———

——–                        Holly                ———

——–                        Joan                 ———

——–                        Derek               ———


It was easy. Now try this


European American                                        African American

Or                                                                  or

Bad                                                                Good

——–                        Hurt                             ——–           

——–                        Evil                               ——–           

——–                        Glorious                       ——–           

——–                        Wonderful                    ——–           


Was it as easy as the first one? This is called the implicit association test (IAT), you can take it online at www.implicit.harvard.edu. We can make connection between two ideas which are already related in our mind more easily then we do between pairs of ideas which are unrelated.  For most people, it is much harder to put glorious and wonderful with good when it is paired with African American. That is the power of the subconscious. Our stated and conscious position on racism may be very different from what we feel at an unconscious level.


Another very interesting example is from the world of classical music. Until recently it was a dominated by white men. It was believed that women could not play like men. In recent times the musicians established a union and many rules were formulated for the selection process. During the selection process, participants were identified by numbers and had to perform behind a screen. So selectors have no knowledge of who is performing.  Since this practice was established the number of women in the top US orchestra has increased five fold.


The point that should be noted in these examples is that none of these people were consciously gender biased or racist but the subconscious is so powerful that one is not even aware of its influence.

I was talking to my friend last week. She was very upset about how people treat gays and transgenders in India. She was talking about establishing a school for them to run. I asked her if anyone would put their children in such a school. Even I wouldn’t. Believe me, I understand their problems and empathize with their issues. But, would I trust them with my son? Honestly, I don’t think so.

If not anything, Blink made me examine my own prejudices and I think I will be less judgmental about others’ henceforth.

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My friend Priya, who is a director in the training department of my company, told me about this book. She said after reading it she realized why it is so hard to get people to attend a training program.  “We do not associate learning with class rooms”, she said. “From childhood all our worthwhile, usable learning has been outside the class room. So most people attend training for other reasons like having fun or networking.” Once she said it, it appeared a pretty obvious conclusion. I thought a book that could provide such interesting insights must be a good one.

According to Rapaille we acquire a silent system of codes as we grow up in a culture and we will reject anything which is in conflicts with this code. He has used this technique to help many big companies to design their branding and Ad campaign. He gives some interesting examples how he used culture codes for this purpose. He was invited by Nestle to help sell instant coffee in Japan. During the course of his research he found that Japanese had extremely strong emotional association with tea but most people had no imprint of coffee at all. Based on this insight, Nestle changed it’s strategy in Japan. They introduced desserts for children with Coffee flavor. The younger generation embraced this dessert. Their first imprint of coffee was very positive. Now Nestle sells half a billion pounds of coffee per year in Japan while in 1970 it was virtually non-existent.

In this book the author deciphers the cultural code for America – on aspects ranging from love, beauty, job, health etc. Some findings are obvious, like that for “job”. It is not merely a means of making money; it is “WHO WE ARE”. Whereas the culture code for perfection is “DEATH”!!

I could make sense of some of my professional experiences from the American cultural code for quality, which is “IT WORKS”.  That’s why, I think, it is so easy to work with American clients and tough to work with Europeans. It is so hard to get an American customer to read a quality document. All they care about is whether your product works. I recall a British client, who went through a 400 page KT document 4 times and made me change the tense, the grammar, the verbs and the nouns before she signed off on it.

The author says, American culture is fundamentally an adolescent culture, that’s why they place such a high premium on youth, all their icons are rebels, that’s why they believe in giving second chances to even their presidents.

He concludes with, perhaps the most obvious code, the American Culture Code for America – “DREAM”. In words of Rapaille – “Dreams have driven this country from its earliest days. The dream of explorers discovering new worlds. The dream of the immigrants coming to a land of hope. The dream of entrepreneurs forging the industrial revolution…. We are the product of dream and makers of dreams”.  May be, that’s why, not withstanding all the America bashing happening all over the world, everyone wants to be there. After all, who doesn’t want to live a dream!!!

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It is hard to write a review for a book about which so much has been written. It was one of the most fascinating books I read in recent times. Malcolm Gladwell is an amazing writer. I bought his other book, Blink after reading this one.


The Tipping Point is an analysis of an idea and how it spreads. Galdwell examines an idea in terms of three dimensions which he calls the three laws of tipping point

1)      The law of few – analyzes the kind of people who have huge influence on the ideas ability to catch-on.

2)      The Stickiness Factor – Deals with the quality of message which makes it stick.

3)      The Power of Context – Talks about the conditions and circumstances that cause an idea to spread.


All these ideas are presented as series of case studies. Of the three laws, I found the “The power of context” very powerful. It says people’s behavior is as much a product of their circumstances as their character. By making subtle changes to the circumstances we can bring about huge changes in their behavior and beliefs. He illustrates this point with several examples. One was about how the crime rate in New York City dipped dramatically in 1990s. The other example was of a research conducted by two psychologists at Princeton University. This research was inspired by the story of Good Samaritan which is about a low caste man who helps a wounded person on the road while a priest and a noble man pass him by, without helping.


The psychologist met individually with a group of theology students. Each of them was given a topic to speak about. Some of them were given the story of Good Samaritan, other were given some other topic from the bible. They were informed that they would have to go to the nearby building a give an extempore talk on this subject. To some of them they said, “Oh, You are late, they were expecting you few minutes ago, you better hurry”, to others they said “It will be a few minutes before they are ready for you, but you might as well head over now”.


Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man who had fainted in the alley. They wanted to find out who would stop and help this man. We would assume that the person who is going to be speaking on the “Good Samaritan” would be most likely to stop and help the man. However, it did not have any significant impact on the helping behavior. The only thing that mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Only 10% of those who were rushed stopped to help the man as against 63% of those who knew they had time.


What this study implies is that your convictions or even your immediate thoughts seem to be less important than the immediate context of your behavior. To me, this was a very radical notion. A huge paradigm shift. There are several such examples in the book, each with startling new revelations.


The only draw back I found was that the book used deeply American examples, like Paul Revere and his impact on American Revolution, the TV programs Sesame Street and Blue’s clues. People who are not exposed to American history and television may not be able to relate to these. I think this is one factor that would prevent it from becoming a truly global book, like Seven Habits or Road Less Traveled. Otherwise it is a great book. I was wowed by every chapter and loved its implication that it is possible to change the world. In words of Gladwell, “Tipping Points are reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It seems like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push, in just the right places it can be tipped.”

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I had written a review of “Man’s search for meaning” last week. My friend and CKO of my company, Sukumar had commented that I should look up The Stockdale Paradox. It is named after Admiral, Jim Stockdale who was imprisoned in Vietnam. He was tortured for 8 years before he was released. How did he survive for 8 years when many of his fellow prisoners died within a few months?

Stockdale says ““I never lost faith. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Strangely the people who did not survive were the optimist, those who thought they will be released by Christmas and when it did not happen they died of a broken heart. This is very close to Frankl’s experience too. He says the death rate increased close to Christmas because people who believed they would be spending it with their family, died of disappointment.

 Stockdale says, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (source) 

Frankl and Stockdale were really great people who could resolve such paradoxes in life-threatening and desperate situations. But what about us ordinary people? Don’t we face paradoxes in our lives?

I want to teach my son that he should strive to be the best in his class. The desire to be on the top of his class would drive him to work hard and bring out his full potential. At the same time, I want him to understand that winning is not everything. If he doesn’t, he will be constantly disappointed and he will not be able to make friends with people who are more talented and better than him. Every time he participates in a competition I struggle to get this point across. “You have to do your best, you have to keep improving but winning is not everything.”

 Don’t we face a similar paradox in office too. We have to work as a team but we are also competing with our peers for appraisals and promotions.

Would love to know how you deal with such paradoxes?

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