Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, January 20, 2014

Listen To Your Own Tune

Nowadays it’s so easy to get caught up in what others are doing or saying, with the majority opinion on things that you may not think to question. Sure, we have our own political and religious beliefs, and argue with our friends about whether Katy Perry is better than Lady Gaga. But when it comes to established ideas about working overly long hours (well, that’s what our boss expects, and besides I don’t want to be shown up by my colleagues), or multi-tasking (well, there are only so many hours in the day), or questioning the way we approach our work (who has time to change how I work, I barely have time to do the work); well, we don’t often question these ingrained ideas.

For instance, I always believed that multi-tasking is the most effective way of getting a lot done, after all, women are supposed to be great at multi-tasking, right? However, for me it didn’t just extend to checking my Twitter feed in the elevator. In order to get my projects done faster, I believed that I had to combine steps, to save time. When writing a research report, halfway through I realised I needed to incorporate information from some more sources. I identified a dozen new sources, and since it was crunch time, I decided to simply start reading and adding in the information at the same time. Needless to say, I was being slowed down by the fact that I had to process what information was relevant, and where in my report it needed to be added in, at the same time. I was making very slow progress and started to panic that I wouldn’t make my deadline.
At this point, I had the idea to break down the tasks into fewer steps - I first added the research I found that was relevant into a new document, properly cited of course, and then I tried to figure out where in my original report this could be included. Surprisingly, adding in additional steps, instead of increasing the time I spent, actually saved me precious time and I made my deadline. I found that, at least for me, multi-tasking slowed me down so much as to be an ineffective strategy, and I was far better off doing things one at a time.

Reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet I came across a similar point, where she argues that introverts may feel pressure to conform to society’s expectations of behaviour, and forget their own strengths. She suggests that it would be better for them to “honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms”. As someone who prefers to spend time alone and reflect, you may be pressured to instead fight against that instinct, and be more social. Sure, we all need to attend some social functions, and broaden our horizons at times, but it’s important to acknowledge that it is draining, and keep those occasions to the minimum.

I found that I was being subtly pressured to attend certain kinds of activities often, in the evenings, and I found the timings and nature of the activities to be so draining, that I would come home and over-indulge on junk foods and late-night TV in an attempt to get back my equilibrium. Needless to say, that didn’t work, and just made me groggy in the mornings, and helped to pile on the pounds. This year I have made it one of my resolutions to think carefully about each social obligation, and only attend if I absolutely have-to, keeping in mind that I need a lot of time to recharge afterwards.

Listening to your own tune of course has much larger implications as well. When faced with certain career trends or pressures to do one kind of work and not another, we may feel that we chose the wrong field, or that whatever work we are doing isn’t exciting or important enough. At one time it was all the rage to be a lawyer or a management consultant, hence the race to law and business schools. Now the trend is leaning towards app developers, and it seems lots of people are jumping on the coding bandwagon - with free online courses teaching code being the new must-do.

However, just because you aren’t a whiz at Python or Ruby doesn’t make you unable to impact the world, it just means you have to do it in your own unique way. Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can't Ignore You, makes this point forcefully - you shouldn’t buy into the ‘follow your passion’ mind-set, instead you should become really good at what you do.
I would take that one step further, and state that you don’t need to worry whether you’re in the right field, or even the best at your field. Instead, you need to worry about whether you’re trying to make an impact, trying to create value, even in a small way, on a regular basis. This means, be more of yourself, honour your own unique strengths, and use them to give back to the world around you. This is part of the argument made by Seth Godin in his book Linchpin. I found it very reassuring, as lately I had started to fall into the trap of thinking that I made mistakes in the path I chose, I should have studied something different, honed different skills. The point is not what you could or should have done, the point is to make the most of who you are in the present. What are your unique skills and abilities today that you can use in your whole life, not just at home or at work? What do you uniquely bring to the table that can change someone’s life, make someone’s day? I believe that dancing to your own tune doesn’t mean that you should isolate yourself from others, in fact, by being more of yourself, you can give more of yourself to the world.   
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