Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book on poetry "From Auden to Yeats" launched

I just launched the second edition, with some revisions, of my book "From Auden to Yeats: Critical Analysis of 30 Selected Poems for Literature Students".

Here is a description of the book:

This book is a ready reference for students of English literature looking for help navigating the poetry of some of the late nineteenth and twentieth century’s greatest poets. The book contains in-depth critical analyses of 30 selected poems from the work of W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes, John Keats, Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats, as well as brief biographies on each poet, which help to put the poetry in context. The book aims to provide not only a basic understanding of each poem featured, but also explains themes, motifs and symbols used in the poems. This is an invaluable guide for school and college students of English literature or anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of some of the best-known poetry of the last century.
I became fascinated by poetry in high school, especially the nineteenth and twentieth century greats. This is my second book, my first book was commissioned by a leading educational publisher in India, on the poetry of Seamus Heaney. It's available in paperback version, now in its 5th edition.

This book is available currently on as an ebook.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dunce to B+ - Insights from “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

I recently read Cal Newport’s latest offering, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, and had so many thoughts, that I had to try to sort them out on paper. The book is definitely worth reading, even for those who are relatively secure in their career path and are confident they have it all mapped out.
I had a few insights, and will try to put them down in a few posts.
Cal writes about deliberate practice, a method by which you basically improve your skill in a given endeavour. I’ve read two books on the topic, and am already very familiar with the idea. Cal underscores the point that deliberate practise is meant to be uncomfortable, that it is important to go through that process to increase skill. And I thought to myself, this means that if I find something uncomfortable, that’s simply because I haven’t developed the skill yet. And when I do, it will no longer be uncomfortable.
So the point I'm making here is very different from the point made by Cal Newport. He states (or rather the research literature has discovered) that in order to improve a skill we have to go out of our comfort zone, stretch ourselves. I’ve read this before, and this is why improving a skill isn’t easy. However, the corollary to this of course is that if you’re doing something, and its difficult or uncomfortable, that means you are stretching your abilities and becoming better at whatever you are doing. This may sound obvious, but in some contexts it may not be so.
We don’t need to be world-class at all skills. In some situations you may need to simply learn how to do if efficiently and effectively, and then it’s important that the skill becomes automatic, that you don’t need to think too much about it. The classic example of this is driving. Learning to drive is initially difficult, but most people get to a point where they can carry on conversations or plan the dinner menu in their head whilst driving (not that I think being distracted being the wheel is advisable).
For me, this insight, that the discomfort in applying a skill is only temporary till I have gotten the hang of it, or mastered it as such, means I am much more likely to hang on in a new skill till I’ve gotten to this point of basic mastery. A prime example recently has been cooking. I know a lot of people love to cook, and I used to be among those when I cooked occasionally, with a lot of help, and only made special dishes. Cooking was fun then, but also an elaborate affair taking many hours, and necessitating lots of clean-up after the mess I made in the kitchen. Recently however, I have had to take over the everyday cooking for my family, with the added requirement of making healthy, low-fat dishes for a new eating program I had started. And initially it was too hard. I could easily cook everyday dishes like pasta, but that wasn’t on the eating plan. Instead I had to make soups, salads, stir-frys, meat dishes with less oil and less processed sauces. And these all had to taste good, because I am an incredibly fussy eater, and far more inclined to eat toast than salad.
Long story short, it was hard; I tried many things, but not only were most of my dishes just ok, they took ages to prepare, and I was feeling very discouraged. When I read this book I realised that maybe this meant I was still developing my skill, and just had to keep at it a little while longer. And although I'm not really a pro yet, I have recently found a few simple and delicious dishes to add to my repertoire that don’t really take as long as before. These were ones I came up with, or variations to recipes I found, that I could only make as my skill developed.
So what’s the point of this story? I have no intention of competing for Masterchef any time soon, when I think about developing skill, cooking doesn’t even make it to the top 5 list. But my goal is to make quick, healthy, tasty dishes. So I had to develop my skills to a certain point. And that’s where the concept of deliberate practise came in – simply by hanging in there, trying new things, riding out the wave of discomfort, I got to a point where I am a good enough cook to achieve my goal. I am still trying to improve my efficiency, to the point where cooking seems to me really easy. Notice how Cal’s goal is to make things harder, to stretch to improve a skill you already have, to hone it further. Yet my goal is to make things easier, to hone a skill I don’t have yet to a point where I don’t have to think about it, it doesn’t stress me out.
If you’re reading this, how can this insight help you? Think of something you need to learn to do, or something you are already doing, or have maybe given up – because its too difficult, it takes too much time and you decided this isn’t something I'm good at. It maybe cooking like me, or learning to make presentations at work, or sorting through your paperwork. If it feels difficult, keep at it, keep trying different strategies till it feels easier. It will feel easier. At which point you can add this skill to your list of things you do automatically, and move on.
What new skill / habit can you make easier for yourself?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twigs on the Beach

I was out walking along the promenade by the beach near my place, and stopped by the railing to look at the sea swirling just below me. The sea looked really calm and beautiful, and as I saw the pile of twigs, wood chips and other debris on the strip of beach below the promenade, I had a thought. I usually dismiss the beach as ugly because of the pile of debris, thinking that I could appreciate it if only it were pristine and clean. Suddenly yesterday, the debris seemed like a minor issue, one that receded behind the beauty of the scene; a serene and calm sea, light blue sky, and the cool breeze blowing. I stopped to catch my breath and felt grateful that I was able to experience the moment.

And then it struck me. How the twigs represented the problems in my life. For the past few years, moving to a new city, struggling to construct a career and life, I haven’t always been happy. I’ve seen the problems as so big and important that they mar the scene of the beach, the scene of my life. Yesterday standing there I realized, what if the twigs weren’t the focus? What if I could enjoy the scene and be grateful, and the twigs just receded into the background, there but not really that important? I realised that my problems were mostly things I worried about for the future, or issues related to my ego – was I successful enough, or making enough money, or achieving as much as I possibly could in every area of my life. They weren’t real. Not real like problems I have faced in the past, potentially not having a roof over one’s head, worried about income, safety. Real problems that people face everyday. I am so lucky that I don’t need to worry about that anymore. So why then am I still unable to feel safe, secure; why am I still struggling, in my head?
As I realised that I could choose, that even though I do need to take action and work hard, I don’t need to let the twigs mar my enjoyment of the sea, I relaxed. And I felt a huge weight lifted off. I know that I may not remember this every day, that some days trying to get everything done, and work on my long-term goals may feel overwhelming. But I hope I remember the feeling, of knowing that I can choose to let these issues recede to the background, even if for a moment, and regain that feeling of complete stillness and beauty. For that I am truly grateful.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Productivity: For What Purpose?

I have been lately pushing myself to improve my productivity and getting frustrated with lack of progress on certain projects, and in general in my goals. Today while praying / meditating about it, I had a sudden thought – what is my purpose behind this desire for productivity?

And the answer came crystal clear – I want to show off. I want to see quick results in my weight loss so I can look good, post photos of myself on Facebook. I want to get more projects, a better title, so I can update my networking profiles and show off my success. And so it went on with all my goals. The clear pattern that was emerging was ego. I was thinking from my ego, my lesser self, what would make me look good.
And I asked myself, if I thought from my higher self, how would that be different? And I realised instead of obvious weight loss, I would like to feel healthier, have more energy, eat better, and see my health markers improve. I would like to be able to exercise joyfully with nothing hurting. I would like to create work that had an impact, that made a difference to someone. Sure, I still wanted to get more done, but the purpose became different – I wanted to do more, so I can create more value. And I wanted to be healthier so I have the energy to do more, and therefore create even more value.
Perhaps the subtle change in motivation won't make any difference, but more likely it will. I already feel a spring in my step, I feel I have a better reason to push myself. And paradoxically, I also don’t seem to be as harsh with myself as when I was working from ego – the shift in consciousness makes me feel that a slightly imperfect outcome is fine if it still creates value. The biggest change for me is in my current project – a book project I'm working on. I was feeling stuck and operating from fear because I wanted to write something brilliant, something with technical genius. And that objective of course gave me writer’s block, and I couldn’t progress.
Changing my objective to writing something that would touch a chord emotionally, something that would inspire readers, even in a small way, gave me permission to write simply, but from the heart. And that is really more up my alley. Don’t get me wrong, I'm still nervous. Because I have always believed that striving for brilliance is important, otherwise I would just slacken and do what’s easy. But perhaps maybe changing definitions – of what is difficult, what is easy - is in order. It may be even harder to focus on creating something that is emotionally honest, rather than technically flawless. It may be harder to put aside one’s ego, one’s need to shine, to think about what might be more likely to bring gratitude rather than accolades.

So next time you’re worrying about getting things done, ask yourself: what is the purpose of completing these tasks, and am I coming from my lesser or greater self?
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