The importance of 'Rituals'

 Rituals - everyone has them!

Rituals - everyone has them!

"We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then is not an act but a habit."

The first time I came across this quote was when we were shooting a video for my business school, Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. A few of us were asked to say this aloud and funnily enough, the team which was making this video made us repeat this line quite a few times to get the best shot. I found the quote quite fascinating and it was probably my first exposure to the idea of system-thinking versus goal-thinking.

The first book I read in the ‘self-help’ genre was Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance earlier though I didn’t consider it a self-help book then. (On that note, the first book that I read which I’d classify under self-help will have to be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) Coming back to Rich Dad, Poor Dad – I had picked it up because it had been highly recommended by so many people at work. The one idea that I seem to recall from that book was how a person is the sum total of his/her friends and where/ with whom he spends all his time.

The same idea popped up again when I read about what most sport-champions consider the secret of their success; what the world’s best CEOs consider the small things they do that make the difference; what Scott Adams recommends as life-advice. Was this the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon at work?

Seth Godin has talked about the secret-handshakes of tribes. When I see religious and cultural rituals, I try to imagine how that particular ritual must have come about. One tends to retro-fit many rituals to some agricultural or ecological context to justify why it was started in the first place. I wonder if they were designed deliberately or evolved over a period of time or were done and followed for generations, without anyone giving it a thought.

An interesting ritual I come across is in the kids’ school. The school usually starts everything with five minutes of meditation and a prayer – kids start their day this way in most schools. The interesting thing is the parent-teacher meetings also start with five minutes of meditation and followed by a Sanskrit spiritual chant which says the Teacher is the representative of God and we all salute the God. Such sessions usually are crib sessions where parents come to the school with a long list of complaints. I feel the five minutes of relaxation and the chanting in praise of the teachers goes a long way in either eliminating most of the unnecessary complaints and definitely reducing the intensity of the complaints.

One habit that we have developed in our team is to ask quiz questions. One thing that binds everyone in our team is that we all love quizzing. So someone volunteers to ask a Question of the Day on our Whatsapp group. We also do a short quiz at the start of every meeting. This is our equivalent of meditation. Trying to answer questions gets us all to be mentally present for the meeting - we all are in the right frame of mind and meetings become a lot more effective!

Rituals, habits, systems are the building blocks for making any sustainable change. Change is happening all the time – sometimes planned and many a time, it is inadvertent.

I’d love to hear your experiences with designing rituals in your life or at work.

Tennis Chronicles: What did I tell my best friend?

There had been a lull for some time since the last time I had written about my Tennis. A book we often recommend is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the techniques they talk about while taking decisions for yourself is to answer the question “What would I tell my best friend in this situation?” If you can detach yourself from a situation but also think about it for your best friend, you will care enough. That really increases the chances of taking better decisions. I have been trying to get this balance of dispassionate-ness and ‘caring enough’ in lot of the decisions I have been taking at work and in life.

Coming back to my tennis - I had a feeling that I was just showing up at my tennis class every day and going through whatever was on offer that day – it was not really going through the motions but it felt like that to me because I didn’t have a plan; I felt I was drifting. I decided to take a step back and look at my learning, what could I change and of course, give some rest to my troublesome knee. So I decided to take a break for the month of May.

During my cycling trips every morning, I chanced upon a different tennis academy and decided to play there for a few days to see how it goes. The new place was different in many ways:

  • It’s a hard-court. I had played only on clay courts for one year.
  • It’s much closer to my house. So I could save a lot in transit time.
  • There were three courts as against the four at the previous place.
  • There were fewer people who came to play.

I started with some doubts but decided to give the new place a shot anyways. The first week was horrible – I found it difficult to get used to the pace of the court; I was anyways coming off a month-long break. But I slowly got more comfortable. When our kids came back from their vacation, I convinced them to join me at this new place (leaving all their friends from their older class). Around 2 weeks in, I realized the biggest difference – the coach at the new place has given me ‘technical advice’ on exactly 2 occasions in the last 40 odd days. You might recall the equation I had quoted from The Inner Game of Tennis,

Performance = Potential – Interference

In the book, the author talks about how the ‘coaching’ from the coach becomes an interference for the player because she wants to implement what she has been told – extend your arm, check your grip et al. This new coach plays regularly with us; has been coaching for a few decades. So I’m sure he has a lot to say but his philosophy seems to be to let players develop their own style. He has a slightly different approach with the kids but largely the philosophy seems to be the same.

This works very well for me, personally. I can make my plans for what I want to improve every day. Since there are fewer people, I play more sets instead of going through the standard routine drills that everyone was put through. Fewer people as compared to the earlier place also means that there are fewer people whose tennis skill- level will be rated as high. Yet, my level has definitely gone up because I have been able to make the changes I want to and plan for. The biggest difference is that I feel more in control of my tennis journey and I feel happy about it! For an autodidact like me, this is the perfect scenario. I’ll wait to see how it goes for the kids.

So if I had to report back to my best friend, this is how his advice helped –

  • Found the new courts when I was out cycling -  Increase exposure to new situations, people, to improve chances of serendipity to happen to you
  • Took a break – allowed me to do detached reflection
  • Tried out the new place – experiment before coming to any conclusions
  • Fewer people at the new place – more mind-space and playing-time
  • Under-coaching allowing me to do my own thing.

What advice would you give to your best friend?