The clues to living well

November 13, 2021 | FF Daily #522: FF Recommends, keep learning; be curious; explore new ideas; listen to more people “not like yourself”

Arun Maira

[From Unsplash]

My friend, Charles, asked me a question yesterday. He is wont to pop profound questions to me unexpectedly—questions that make me think. He asked me what is the secret for living a good life.

“Why me?” I asked him. Because I think you are living a good life, he replied. Which made me think. Do “I” think ‘’I” am living a good life? Which led me to think more deeply, who am “I”? Which is something I have thought about a lot since I was a teenager, the time in life when children become most self-conscious about how they are judged by others.

I became curious about what was going on in Charles’s mind. What was his idea of a “good life”, and how come he thought I was leading a good life (regardless of whether I felt the same way of my own life)?

He said that he was observing how other people of my age (I am 78 now), and many much younger than me too, do not seem to be as productive and creative as I am. I continue to read and write, and perhaps am doing even more than I was before. Other people of my age seem to be “passing time” in comparison—living on, but not “living” as well. Moreover, I seem to be very curious, according to Charles, about what young people think and am very respectful of their views. My circle of friends seems to be widening, whereas other older people seem to have become immersed in their own circles, and indifferent or cynical about what is happening in the wider world around them.

Maybe that is the clue to living well, I said to Charles. Keep learning; be curious; explore new ideas; listen to more people “not like yourself”.

My mother, who passed away when she was 97, living as independently as she could till the end, would brush aside my brothers’ and my concerns about her failing health. She said she wanted to add more life to her years, not years to her life. She always wanted to explore and learn more till the very end. When learning stops, living stops, and only existence continues, she said.

There is a Greek word for what she taught me. It is “Neoteny”, which means holding onto youthfulness. Evolutionary biologists have noticed that the young ones, in those species that are more emotionally and mentally evolved, spend longer proportions of their lives in a learning phase before they become doers. Human children are kept in education much longer by their parents, and shielded from the real world, before being sent out to look after themselves than baby birds, for example. The chicks are turned out of the nest as soon as they can flap their wings and fly. 

One doesn’t have to be in a formal school to learn. In fact, formal education seems to be about shoving information into a child’s brain, whether the child is curious about the subject or not. “Just in case” the information is useful to pass some exam and move on to the next stage of life. Where, once again, one must meet the expectations of those above, and be promoted further. Until, finally, the ‘career’ ends, one retires, and sinks into an existence of adding years to one’s life, in the pleasant company of others like oneself, on golf courses, WhatsApp groups, or wherever else others like oneself gather.  

When one is younger, there is much to be learned from older people. When one is much older, there is much more to be learned from younger people, who are still curious and eager to learn. I am learning to live again by reliving the curiosity about the world around her that my ten-year-old granddaughter has.

I am learning greatly from young people in their twenties and thirties who turn to me with questions about why the world is as it is, and what they can do to make it a good world for everyone. My generation of leaders and experts has failed, Greta Thunberg dramatically declared in the UN General Assembly. I am part of all those who thought they knew, and find it hard to admit that they did not know. I don’t have answers for my young friends. All I can say to them is that they must be better learners than we were and continue to learn all their lives. I continue to learn with them.

As we go on in life, we acquire an identity of who we are, which is largely shaped by what others say we are: the positions and ranks they give us, and how they treat us. We spend our lives trying to look good to others for the sake of our “self-respect”. Am “I” only what others see me as? Isn’t there another “I” inside me which looks out at them and into the world? The problem is how can “I” see this “I”? This is the recursive problem that confounds “The Mind’s I”, which is the title of a compilation of essays on “self and soul” by the mathematician and cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, and the philosopher, Daniel Dennett.

The Mind’s I begins with a very short essay, “Borges and I”, by the writer Jorge Luis Borges. It is only two paragraphs long, the second of which is a single sentence.

In the first paragraph Borges writes:

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors… It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, I let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me… I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone.)

The second para is the punch line:

“I do know which of us has written this page”.

Jorges’s question about himself has been a cue for me to often wonder. When I am speaking, is it the “official” me who is speaking? We hide our real “I” behind identities we must wear so that others can know who we are. Am I saying only what I am expected to say to look good? Or do I have the courage to speak from my own heart and my own mind?

When I am listening to another, am I listening to the “I” within the other, or to the person that the other has got used to, and wants to, be seen as?

When Charles asks me, with respect for me, how I live well, will I “lose face” with him if I say “I” do not know?

When I think my word must be the last word, it is my ego that is thinking. When I think I know all that needs to be known about a subject, I stop learning further. My neoteny ends. And with that, my living well will end too. 

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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