2021. The Year of Humanity’s Burn Out.

One of the defining experiences of the pandemic has been the constant anxiety grating at our conscience, not letting us recharge completely – the burnout. The overwhelmed medical fraternity experienced it. So did the migrant workers orphaned from the mai-baap sarkaar. The anxious and overworked security guard felt it. So did the digital worker straining his will along the extended hours of zoom calls. The overworked workers felt it who were saddled with extra workload of all the others who had been fired (sometimes opportunistically to improve short-term margins). So did the unemployed who were truly ‘full time’ occupied with the efforts, concerns, fears and preparations of getting a job/ making a living. Kids felt it who couldn’t go out to play nor could afford quality digital education. So did the women who lost their jobs, were saddled with double the household responsibilities than normal and had to run their uniquely dysfunctional homes even as the regular support systems evaporated.

2021 is truly the year of burn out.

A role to play

We must make sense of our lives. Without the anchor of ‘meaning’, we suffer an existential seasickness as we float uncertainly in the ocean of possibilities. The pandemic tsunami tore at the foundations of our indentity. Who are we if we are not working/ pubbing/ travelling/ minting money…?
Without someone else to tell me/ buy from me/ look at me/ yell at me, do I even matter?
stock market is up, billionaires are in space, acquaintances have been promoted… I MUST be doing something terribly wrong!?

Routines and habits

For many of us, as we retreated into our shells, we lost our rhythm. We realise that the rhythm is not set by us. It is set by the sun, by the weather, by the people around us, by our roles, by our surrounding. As we retreat from them all, we lose our rhythm. Day segues in night. Minutes into hours into weeks. The weight of all the things not-done weighs heavily on our conscience and makes it even harder to return to that rhythm of the previous principled life. Without rhythm, there’s no recuperation, no action, no meaningful progress. There’s just stasis, a hibernation without rest.

The blurred boundary

Public and private; as video calls seeped into our homes and soaked up all its grimy details.
Night and day; as we retreated from the natural world.
Digital and real; as we doomscrolled and revenge-shopped and daydreamed with an existential urgency.
Appropriate and inappropriate; as social mores had to be invented for a new reality of video calls.
Reality and unreality; as we lost our bearings about our place in the world, about our thesis of the world, about trust in our leaders.

Things we mistake/ conflate with freedom

Capitalism taught us HOW to desire, how to socialise, how to express one’s freedom.
Outdoors, SUVs, Drinking without abandon, Eating-out, parties, travelling obsessively, Drinking unhealthy colas, eating shitty burgers, Buying new clothes…. Are we free if we are not doing these things?
People tried to answer that question by buying things, experiences online. Only to discover that buying is a cheap, unsatisfying substitute to what those things actually were only a means to. We misunderstood symbols for the real things. We discovered that there are two kinds of people – one for whom the symbols are enough and that they live in that metaverse. And the other who realised the distinction.

The uncertainty

Cascading uncertainties. Climate change. inequality. fast pace of change with technology and pandemic fuelled new orientation of markets.
There is no certainty in the meta-narratives with these big changes happening around us.
There is no certainty in the micro-narratives of our own little bubbles. the changes are very visibly altering our lives.
The uncertainty, that until now lurked at the edge of our conscience, has taken a solid and heavy presence in our psyche. It is here to stay.

“Insights” as revelations of hidden optionalities

As the world moves faster and drags the advertising industry along with it, the concept of ‘insight’, which resolutely stood at the centre of the advertising industry for long, is appearing blurred.

Often, we find ourselves in meeting rooms sharing a scratch of the head, “what’s an insight, anyways?”. Here’s my take.

What is an insight?

Firstly, when we talk about insights, we are talking with the purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment to convince someone of something. (Unlike insight in literature or art where the only subjectivity that matters is that of the creators. And therefore, advertising is not art.)
It is purposive.
It seeks a response/ influence.
It requires an ‘other’ to incept in.
An insight that cannot trigger response is not useful.

Secondly, insight is relative. What is insightful to me might not be insightful for you. What is insightful for me now might not be insightful for me when I am older.

Thirdly, insight illuminates the beyond. People don’t find what they know, insightful. So, the playground of insight starts beyond their knowledge, their feelings, their experiences.  

Simply put, I find something insightful if it was something that I didn’t know before.
I find something exhilarating if I had not experienced it before.
I feel I have grown, only after experiencing something, often a failure, that makes me reassess my previously held beliefs.

Insights push the boundaries of knowledge, feeling, being.

To create an ‘a ha’ moment, we need to drive the person right beyond the edge of his knowledge, his beliefs, his perspectives.

So, it is not enough to know what your consumer knows, feels, believes in. We need to know what the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart are. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (which is relevant to the brand in question).

Insights as the revelation of a hidden option

A precise purpose of the ‘insight’ then is to convince the consumer to push their boundary; to step beyond their normal; to step beyond their range of feelings. An insight makes an option accessible, that they didn’t know of, or couldn’t access, or didn’t think they deserve it.

An insight is an invitation and encouragement to expand the boundaries of our lives. It propels us to seize an opportunity hidden to us for so long.

A black hole called mobile phone

Self-help books suggest that to gain control over ourselves, we must first clear our environment of distractions. But we now live a life where we depend on these distracting devices. If I earn my livelihood by being mediated through a laptop, what do I do? It’s some sort of Pavlov’s dog principle in action. We are so accustomed to servicing through the device that we stop noticing when we begin to serve the device itself. ‘Just say no’, won’t work. Simplistic solutions like these often don’t work.

A physically non-remarkable flat surface (and we have gone to great lengths to make it unremarkable. The portal itself shouldn’t distract from what it portals to!) has become the focal point of all our attention – work triumphs, work anxieties, deadlines, cat videos, video calls, meetings, movies, songs, news, friends, memories, sex, commiseration, plans… all through a screen. The screen is a singularity around which our every action, concern, decision, and of course attention converge.
Our brains were not made to work with such transparent magic. We think in spaces, distances, physical efforts, causes & effects. But everything collapses at the edge of these modern-day black holes. The singularity FEELS endless, of indeterminate consequence, immediate yet all-encompassing. And indeed, the compression is in our feelings, not the actual world of consequences. Our thoughts and feelings are separated from reality and focused in this singularity. And how does this singularity feel? A whirlwind that rifles through many nerves one after another – Neurotic. Anxious. Elated. Aroused. Bored. Excited. Jealous. Sad. Potentially, all at once.

This is somewhat similar to the Uncertainty inherent in the quantum realm, isn’t it? A state of a particle is always potentially something and it manifests a certainty only when influenced by an observer. When no one’s looking, it could be anything (the cat being potentially dead and alive.) Perhaps something similar is at play here too. The feelings we feel depends on the observer in this panopticon. So, the question is, who is the observer?

The observer is the one whose attention we are considering – it could be ourselves or an imagined someone else. Our, imaged outside-in view.
We potentially feel everything, the actual feeling manifest depends on the observer we are imaging doing the observing.

So, in a sense, the device turns us into an actor, forever performing for this variable observer. At times the observer is the idealized us, at times the imagined judgemental gaze of friends, our colleagues, our partner, or an imagined stranger who somehow holds a string tied to our life.

We are actors for an imagined audience playing variable parts not knowing when the spotlight is on us and when the curtains are down. In this uncertainty, we keep acting. That’s the real transformation engineered by our mediated-ness.

The quality of our attention is not without judgment, not without displacement. In a mediated world, our attention has that actor’s quality to it. It is once removed – hedged for the observer, enacting an idealized version of ourselves, looking in from outside – wondering how may we look, wondering what is expected of us.

Since that other ‘looks’ at us through mediated devices – phones, laptops, surveillance cameras… the gaze that matters to us is not our own, but the one that emanates from these devices. We perform for our devices, not the other way around.
We were not made for this. But this is our Sisyphean boulder now – performing forever for the screens. There’s no easy escape from it.

So how can a modern person, carrying this Sisyphean boulder all the time, even begin to think about reclaiming her agency, regaining control over her own attention? How can she make sense of the world, fight against powers trying to steal her attention?

***

This text is part of the draft of a book I am writing. Don’t know when (and if) I will finish it.
I have started a new blog relevant to this topic – rewiringchaos.com Do check it out.

Perils of specialism

In the age of specialism, everyone’s an expert.
And when everyone’s an expert, no one listens to others.
And when no one listens to others, the human collective cannot work together consciously. It can only work together through the specialist narrow systems of incentives and capital.

Narrow systems of incentives are a recipe for disaster. For instance, when growth is the only incentive, climate & communities become the ‘externalised’ victims. And the bubbles of specialism do not let emerging threats and opportunities be addressed by humanity with an united front. Look at climate scientist crying hoarse with urgency, while wall street bankers go on griping about growth as if without a ‘skin in the game’ of human survival.

End of the world as we know it.

Specialism creates bubbles of concentrated wisdom that does not cross-pollinate with ideas from other stream and adoption of those ideas with appropriate urgency (or not). Any resilient system needs diversity, and specialism doesn’t allow for that diversity to bear fruits.

The only way out of current challenges of polarisation of societies, increasing inequality & climate crisis is through incentivising multiplicity of perspectives, capabilities, functions, goals and enabling cross – communications & intermixing of work streams.

Must embrace multiplicity and diversity in our lives, economic systems and work culture.

Home

Moving

I recently moved to my eighth house in ten years across five cities. Now that I look back at our movement, I am in awe of the amazing ability of my home in accommodating that frenzy and turning it into a simple peace. I moved with economic currents, with multiplying of love, with refusal to be taken advantage of. Every move was an emotional decision. To move so often, to have emotionally charged decisions to be made so frequently, points to a world in a flux, a world spinning at the end of the rinse cycle – manic, moving at breathtaking speed, unnerving. I am but a little flotsam, floating with the currents, trying to ride the wave, instead of being swallowed whole and spit out bitterly.

The first four houses were witness to my loneliness, my listlessness, my daydreams, my attempts at finding love and bouts of creative diarrhea. It was a place where time stretched out and wrapped around me like an anaconda; moving slowly and then suddenly. Sleep came from exhaustion from waiting, absorbing the cold bright light from glowing rectangles… that too slowly and then suddenly.

Gods

I come from hill country. Since childhood, hills, lakes and wide expanses were my gods. It was a spiritual necessity to return to them every evening. In an extended sense, hills were my home. When that was no longer possible in Mumbai, I turned to trekker groups for that necessary pilgrimage every other weekend. With Gurgaon, the hope was to experience the majestic Himalayas every month. But as it turns out, the travel doesn’t come cheap and there are only so many extended weekends in a year. So it became a yearly pilgrimage. I slowly lost my gods but thankfully found love in the meantime too. With that, the home changed from being a base camp to our own little haven.

Love

Love makes life worth living. Love turns a house into a home. A warmth, a lightness, a happiness permeates the air in the home. Things start to have a shared meaning. Milestones get etched into walls, refrigerators and scratched/ stained furniture. Things multiply. The meaning they carry weigh more than the utility they serve. The line between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ gets smudged, obliterated, redrawn depending on how many of the chores were shared that day.

A triangular universe

Between the triangulation of homes of childhood and home we make together lies the entire universe. We can reach the farthest reaches of our capabilities, we can survive the deepest of falls and find unlimited happiness and weather new sorrows within this triangulated safe place.

Salmon

I am a salmon.

Talisman

Homes are not homes until it gets anointed with a few ‘things’ that must find the right and proper place in the house. For me its the books. The only constant in my luggage through all of our homes have been my books. Over the years, i have given away many and bought many. But there are always books in our home.
My wife is an artist and some of her beautiful and priceless artwork adorns our walls and display cabinets. Our home cannot be complete without the bowls, cups and platters made by her. So some of it travels with us in the in-between times. I can’t bear to drink tea/ coffee from any cup that is not made by her anymore. It just won’t feel right.

My books, her bowls and the two of us complete the home.

The lighthouse

Our hope is to build ourselves a home in the next few years that will stay with us, get old with us, that we won’t have to give up with vagaries of life. To make that a reality, we are planning on saving some money, which we have been terrible at so far. The roots of our future home is being laid in a habit of watching our expenses and being prudent with money, new territory for us.

Here’s to the hope of rising above the waves pushing us this way and that way. Cheers.

Enamored with ‘simplicity’

Simplicity is good. A Simple message is more readily understood, more readily spread. So I am all for the final expression of ideas being simple – the tag line, the copy.. simpler the better, generally.

Even if we look under the hood, the thinking behind the ad, the strategy – simplicity often helps prioritise, helps clarify. The search for simplicity helps us frame our questions better, zero-in on key questions quicker.

However, simplicity has also become an excuse for the ignorant not to learn. Simplicity has become a tool that helps older generation remain in denial. The simplicity mantra has allowed the advertising industry leadership to remain complacent in the face of existential crisis.

Life is not simple. Understanding life is not simple. To arrive at a simple clarity, one typically has to go through fairly complex experiences and a conscious effort to engage with that complexity. Engaging with complexity to unearth meaning is the bedrock of human evolution. We are evolutionary deadwood if we don’t engage with emerging complexities and strive for relevance in the new world.

Here’s a few anecdotes of what I want to convey –

A client wanted to create a ‘platform for X’: a very promising and untapped area. But they had obviously not thought through yet. I thought of Scott Galloway’s insight that lists 10 factors that affect chances of success for a global platform company. The fact is, even this list of 10 factors would be considered over simplification by wiser folks. But it could help us help the client see the obvious areas of improvement in their business plan. Climbing up the value chain for us – from simply brand identity to strategy consultancy.

But unfortunately, the agency leadership did not understand and did not have the time to understand the basics of the new economy. They didn’t want to dabble into things they don’t understand, fair enough. But that means sidestepping a fair amount of opportunities.

Their desire for simplicity meant tremendous opportunity costs.

Second anecdote –
This was a typical NGO project related to changing certain health habits. Creative team jumps onto a morbid ‘shock treatment’ idea. Why not do something like ‘dumb ways to die’? The death part, not the fun happy jingle part. Never mind the context.

Fear works! they pronounce.
I show research saying that it is not very helpful. Some people rally, but a vast majority of TG would perceive it as an attack on their identity and pull up their defenses, strengthening their bad habits. It is a fairly well documented effect – the backfire effect. But sharing the knowledge of backfire effect, backfired. Creatives pulled up their defenses and held their morbid deathly idea even tighter to their bosoms.

They responded by ridiculing the research – there are so many conflicting researches. No point in listening to it. We ‘know’ fear works, they pronounced.

Fear to engage with unknown psychological complexities held them back from doing what could have been amazing work.

I feel that people who analyse ads often put far more thought than the people who make those ads. Because it is their job to deconstruct complexities with the first group. And to simplify and elicit a reaction for the latter group.

How do you learn if you don’t engage with the complex?
We need ruminations over complex matters to achieve the essential simplicity.

The ones who don’t engage their grey cells and their heart with real complexities, won’t find the elegant voice of truth that shapes great creative work.

The truth about bullet riders

This was written in response to a Quora question.
 The question was “Why trend to purchase bullet bikes increased in India?

I think bikes (as most other things) are bought not only for its functional relevance but for its psychological relevance. (If you can commute ably with a 35k bike, why would you spend a lakh more on a bike which essentially is a bulkier, less advanced machine?)

The purchase of bullet is purely a matter of fulfilling a psychological need. So the question is – what is the psychological need being met by Bullets and why are more people in India feeling that particular need?

Bullet is uniquely manly. While Pulsar is ‘definitely male’, it is also immature. Pulsar is boyish, bullet is manly.
Most fared bikes are positioned to younger audiences. They answer the need of adrenaline rush.. what we call ‘potency needs’. Its the quintessential teenage need to feel on the edge. Bullet is not for these men (boys).
Bullet has been traditionally used by people in armed forces, government services.. so it has a connotation of authentic power. When modern bikes were introduced as being ‘definitely male’ and such for the teenagers-at-heart, the bullet automatically got positioned as the ‘authentic’ men’s bike, due to its lineage. Substance v/s show.
Bullet – less advanced, heavier, slower, louder.
New fared bikes = advanced, lighter, faster, refined.

Bullet has a stronger ‘physical presence’. slow, heavy  and loud = a more assured and solid rider imagery.
New bikes, even if they are technologically better, being quick and light – they seem (to people with masculine anxieties) as less robust and less manly.


The reality is most Indian men are still boys. not completely responsible for themselves, and proud of it. afraid of women, yet dreaming of ‘conquering’ them. Depending on parents well into late 20s (if not later too.) essentially, incomplete men. Pose them a real challenge in life and they would rather leave for Himalayas.

In a world of youngsters facing identity crisis, Bullet gives an unambiguous Indian identity of rugged macho.
In a world of sanitised skyscrapers and sedentary lifestyle, Bullet fills the need to belong to the rawness of Bharat, the earthen macho.
In an increasingly risk-averse society, the bullet lends an identity of the ready-for-any-reality macho, to the rider.
The signature loud (annoying) sound of the exhaust, announces presence of the rider. It fills the need of the less-loved men to imagine them having a ‘presence’.

Essentially, a bullet enables a person to feel good about himself when he is concerned about the inauthenticity and emasculation of his modern identity. Bullet frees him from masculinity anxieties.