Monday, March 29, 2010

The Need for an Affiliation

Here's a practical tip for those who are seriously considering quitting their jobs and trying other things for a while.

Not long ago, I was telling my friend SR about the difficulty I was having in responding when people asked me what I did. "So what do you do?" they'd ask and I would stumble and dance around in trying to give a clear answer. I also began to notice that my "Profession" gets asked in practically every form I filled out.

Often, saying "I don't have a job" or "I'm on a sabbatical" or "I'm just taking it easy for a while" is not appropriate. It also invariably leads to more questions that I might not be in a mood to entertain.

When my friend heard this, he said, "Man, what you really need is an affiliation. I fully get what you are trying to do, but an affiliation is very important in this society."

With each passing week, I saw that he was absolutely right. When responding to the what-I-do question I began to notice that I was always associating myself with some group or profession. I would tell some people that I was a freelancer or a part-time consultant or a volunteer. All of these were true but I was implying a greater affiliation than there actually was. Not because I wanted to lie or mislead, but mostly to stave off questions.

So here's my tip: Before you quit, and if at all possible, make sure that you still keep some professional affiliation going. Offering to volunteer (where you see ways you can add value) is the best way I know of to gain affiliations. It doesn’t have to pay, or be full time, but it will certainly make your transition a little smoother.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Skills for the survival of the civilization

Back when I was in grad school and a teaching assistant, my students would demand why they had to study "useless things which they'd never use anyway." I used to wonder about this myself sometimes and so I never had a good response.

Recently, in an welcome address by a professor, I heard something that I wish I had heard years back. It would have certainly given me a perspective I didn't have when in college. Let me explain.

As a student in engineering college, I had several courses where I had to learn esoteric things that I knew I would never ever even remotely use in my professional life. So why were they insisting that these things be included in the syllabus?

The best explanation that I could come up with was that in an attempt to make better engineers out of us, our engineering college was teaching us "problem solving." I told myself that even though we wouldn’t use the exact thing being taught, we were becoming better problem solvers. But that explanation always rang false and was never quite satisfactory.

Prof. M S Ananth of IIT Madras was giving a welcome address to a group of professors who were attending a workshop on NPTEL, the program I volunteer at.

He said that people should realize that there are two types of skills. One set is the skills needed for the survival of the individual. Vocational training institutions do a very good job of teaching these, and we can all readily see the value in these skills, because they help us earn a living.

The other set, he said, are skills for the survival of the civilization. These are equally important and shouldn’t be neglected. He felt that institutions of higher learning shouldn’t waver from teaching these skills. And those of us who are learners or researchers, no matter what our field is, should have faith that we are adding to this skill set in incremental amounts and continue our work.

Skills that are needed for the survival of the civilization – I had never heard it phrased quite that way. Wish I had heard this 20 years earlier.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Movable Feasts – A Behind the Scenes look

Managing the kitchen has been an interesting experience when moving from city to city every couple of months. A few people have asked me how we manage the cooking part. We do eat out frequently, but we mostly cook our meals. We can't eat out 3 meals a day, every day.

Back in our apartment in Chicago, we had lots of utensils and kitchen appliances. Since we are now restricted by luggage that we can carry by ourselves, we move around with a very limited amount of utensils. Our kitchen stuff fills about half of one suitcase.

We are forced to be very strict with what we can cart around: 2 dinner plates, 4 bowls, 2 cups and a few spoons. (It is sort of like what they hand you at the start of a week-long Zen retreat, or like going camping, but for a really extended period of time.) We have one small pressure cooker, 1 frying pan, a few stainless vessels, a knife and one flat griddle for dosas, and a few more microwavable plastic takeaway containers for heating and storing.

There's pretty much a checklist for the items in our first grocery shopping in each new place – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, instant coffee and a few ready mixes to start things off. We carry a small bag of spices which we refill as needed. Fresh vegetables are plentiful in India. We started out managing with long-life UHT milk cartons, but there's enough competition among milk vendors so now we get milk packets delivered to our door each morning.

What we now have is surely much less than 20% of what we once had in our kitchen. And what has been a revelation to me is that we are managing quite fine. I don’t feel the lack of those other things except on rare occasions. If we desire something fancy, we have to eat out. We have even hosted dinners for others (with some borrowed vessels and cutlery).

We are very Spartan about adding to our kitchen acquisitions now, which implies that we must have been inefficient before, buying lots of redundant stuff.

And the big lesson (to me) is that cutting back and adjusting to a having a simplified kitchen has not been as difficult as it once seemed from the outside. You just have to be mentally prepared.