4 years with Toastmasters – a journey worth every meeting!

I joined Toastmasters in New York by signing up with Bryant Park club on Oct 1 2013 – I can’t imagine it’s been 4 years already! Though I moved on from there to Warren in New Jersey in Feb 2014, and to Mississauga in Canada in May 2017, I have continued my membership with Citigroup corporate club at each place (luckily, there is/was one). I have written about what Toastmasters is here and here. In fact, I have a news from early last month also – I came in 2nd in the Area 43 contest for Impromptu Speaking (called Table Topics). alok singhalIf you’ve followed me for long, you might know that I won the Area 34 International Speech contest in April this year (in the US), but couldn’t do well at the Division level. Anyway, life is not just about winning, it is more about learning at every step of the way.

It has been my absolute pleasure to be a part of such a fabulous program, which is non-profit by the way! In the 200 or so weekly meetings that have happened in the past 4 years, I must have attended at least 185 of them – such has been my enthusiasm, mostly because of the learnings and fun they provide. I just go to every meeting not thinking about my professional or person life and willing to take in whatever comes. I strong advice you too to find a club nearby by going to https://www.toastmasters.org/ and maybe just walk by to see what happens there for a start. Most likely, you will come back happy and will sign-up!

I can personally lay down the benefits I have seen in myself. I have more confidence in speaking with strangers now, my humor quotient has gone up, and there is that feeling of doing something different than what most of us do on a regular basis. Btw, Toastmasters is not just about Public Speaking as many wrongly understand it to be – the learnings you get while speaking to a group in a friendly environment can be used in everyday life – imagine not slouching while speaking, using proper hand gestures or body language, making eye contact, or just motivating or inspiring people around you. And the price to pay – well, just $45 every 6 months! In fact, many professional speakers around the world rehearse their speech in the club(s) they are associated with before they enthrall their audience at the big stage.

So, what are you waiting for?

When is the best time to invest in Stock Markets?

Each of us have our own perspective when it comes to timing the Markets! If you look at where the India Stock Markets are right now, some would say the conditions are ripe for a much further move up; while some others would say the valuations are over-stretched and it is better to book profits. Well, to be frank, nobody knows what would happen tomorrow. Our guesses are as good as the toss of a coin!stock-market-investmentSo, where does that leave us?

My experience investing in over a decade says invest regularly. That way you won’t feel left out if the stocks move up; if they go down, your further investments would average out the ones you’ve already made. However, basic common sense would say a developing market like India should pay off in the long term, and that’s what it has done! Nifty50 – a widely tracked index of the Indian Markets – has a CAGR of 11.7% in last 20 years (since 1996) and 7.5% in last 10 years (since 2006). But one has to keep in mind that these are long-term averages, meaning there were ups-and-downs over these years. To put things into perspective, if you had invested a lump-sum amount just before the crash of 2008, your money would have taken a serious beating; but, if you had invested at the peak of the crash, you would have made a killing in the next few years. That’s why the wisdom says invest over time.

One basic mistake is to blindly go by the commentary of Analysts. Many have been advising since long that we are in the over-bough territory. If I had followed their advice, I would have not made record profits in each of the last few months! Though it might sound concerning, most of those profits have come from stocks that already rose a bit and my gut feeling asked me to still go with them. Having said that, I do maintain a balance between investing directly in stocks and also in mutual funds via sip route…the individual stocks might get hammered during tough times, but a basket of them would be relatively better off. It is essentially risk vs reward playoff.

This leaves us with using our best judgment when it comes to investing. If you have a long enough experience in the markets, the call will be relatively easy to make; but if you are a novice, you might burn your fingers initially. Again, that’s where investing regularly over a period of time helps and you learn in the process too!

*Picture sourced from here

What it takes for a Relationship to Thrive!

There are many things I don’t understand about women, no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s the reason they say ­Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

I left my home for studies when I was 17, and until my marriage in 2009, I lived with boys. Living with boys gives you a lot of information about girls, except for how to handle their emotional content. Even after close to seven years of marriage, I am not good at it. I don’t know how to react to something my wife feels very strongly about. Though I must confess, sometimes I try hard to find the logic behind her activities, ­like spending half­-an-hour in a store from which she buys nothing, looking through every section of the grocery store when she already has a list with her. I simply fail to understand her psychology!

So, when we got married, I might have said a few things that hurt her. The words that were just a suggestion for stop wasting time on random and unnecessary activities used to shatter her. Honestly, as a new couple, we fought over it too. It’s with time I understood (and accepted) why she behaves in a certain way – stopping at every aisle in the grocery store, going to the mall to buy a t-shirt and coming back with a bag full of clothes, getting annoyed on jokes when I want to have a bit of fun and lighten up the environment. Now I know it all! I think if I had a girlfriend before marriage, I would have known a lot about ladies’ behavior; rather could have been much wiser at that, maybe even exceeding expectations after marriage 🙂

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But when I look back, I feel it’s not much about being a man or a woman. It’s a simple human psychology that works in a relationship. When she wants to be heard, she will repeat it like a child. If she is bored, she will change channels on the TV, like I shut off my system and go for a walk when I am bored. It’s only the understanding and the reaction that is different. Our desires are the same – to be heard, loved, cared, and understood. Everything else stems from it. It’s only with time one gets to know the desires of a person you are in a relationship with. That is why most of the marriages break in the initial years if the couple has a tough time adjusting to each other.

Another aspect why it is not about the gender perse is because I have seen gay partners fighting over the same issues, on which we fight. If two men are in a relationship, shouldn’t they know about every emotional mumbo-jumbo and have a smooth sailing? No! Strangely, a relationship doesn’t work on the basis of your sex, as much as one would like to believe otherwise. Stay-at-home dads are perfect examples of the line becoming thinner day-by-day. In the modern society, respect for emotions, care, and respect have transcended traditional boundaries, which were earlier defined by the gender type in a relationship. To have a successful relationship, it’s better to concentrate on and iron out the issues that cause differences.

I may not understand why my wife cribs when I watch Cricket matches back to back. I am free, and I am at a liberty to utilize my time any way I want. But, I should go to the kitchen when she needs my help. I should get up and answer the door. As these are the things I too would want when I am working and she is relaxing with a book.

When they say marriages are made in heaven, I smirk and pour my wisdom on it – ­even if marriages are not made in heaven, they can be made heavenly with care and understanding.

Are you Happy today?

I am a strong believer in being content with what we already have in life. Essentially, we all have enough to be happy about our lives, yet we keep searching for what we don’t have…a futile effort, and we know ‘why’ already!

Well, this post is to give a couple of happy updates from my side:

  1. Travel updates: I am just back from a 10-day road-trip in California…pretty much covered all major attractions there. Being a travel enthusiast, this is a big reason to be happy about.

Now, I have been getting the question – How can I travel so much (though I don’t travel full-time)? I guess the question relates to money and time aspects.

For me, it is very simple – I ‘chose’ to spend most of my salary on travel. I am not the one who is more concerned about overloading my bank account. I feel decent savings are sufficient to live a happy life; but to be happier, travel 🙂

With finding time, we all get holidays no matter which field we are in. I don’t see any reason to not be able to take a week off every few months (say twice every year). Clubbed with successive weekends, it essentially becomes a long time-off!

Btw, if you haven’t noticed, I am refining this site to make things better and easier for you. I have added a Travel Journal link at the top and classified posts under it based on Geographies I have been to yet. Here’s a quick preview:

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2. Instagram run: I have been on Insta since Dec 12 last year and crossed a 1,000 followers few weeks back. Yay! Feels my pictures are loved by many 🙂 (and up goes my happiness index)

This is especially important since I am only following my wife since beginning, so the expectations of no follow back are clear. I do, however, visit friends’ profiles from time to time.

A humble Thanks to some of you who are already following me there. If not, and you wish to, my handle is The_Learning_Step. I am confident my pics will keep you entertained!*

We all have something to worry about in our lives (including me). But then we can all look at the bright side and sleep peacefully. Maybe tomorrow those worries will get sorted out, as have the worries in the past. Should it matter then? No!

P.S. All pics I share here or on Social Media are mine (unless source is mentioned)…please do not copy. I am not a fan of copying every shot from Flickr, especially if you claim to be a Travel Blogger.

The Great Indian Comedy!

I feel these aspects are applicable primarily to Indians, so the title! If you feel it has takers in other parts of the world too, please feel free to add so we don’t feel alone (no offense to anybody).

The comedy goes as – show us a picture of God or something that touches our emotional being and ask us to Like or Comment or Share within a few seconds or else something wrong will happen, and we would jump at it! Do you really think the world is going to come crashing down if nobody likes that pic? On the other hand, most of you won’t even share my posts on your social media accounts (because you feel they are not worth it, though I really spend a lot of time and money in bringing you the best of places from my travels).

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Another of my favorite is – somebody showing somebody’s grim situation on social media and asking us to contribute in whatever way we can (bank account details are mentioned alongside; how else will you contribute from miles away?). I have seen many such pictures going viral too. The issue is most of us don’t even feel like verifying the authenticity of it and the result is many getting duped of their money.

I am not saying the world is all rosy and such content is always fake, but if we are so practical enough to not pay a very old lady begging on the roadside OR bargaining with a person who has no legs and is still trying to earn his livelihood decently by selling vegetables, why just pay thousands blindly online?

Wouldn’t you want your contribution to actually go to the needy? I am sure you would; so put in some effort to check who is really in need of your help and go ahead with them. I understand it is easy to just transfer the money if somebody can do the ground work for you, but make sure that person is reliable. Otherwise, there are many other ways to help the ones in need…just open up your heart for a start!

Picture sourced from here

Making best use of Social Media

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I am no pundit to guide anybody on how to interact on Social Media. However, there are some basics that I have learned over time, which have worked in my favor.

You may choose to disagree with them, which is perfectly fine; but I would love to hear your views. I have also explained what I do in each situation, which further clarifies the point:

  1. Do not share excessively: You are not a celebrity; else you would not be reading this post!

I had this lady I was connected to via her Blog, FB, Twitter and also IndiBlogger (blogging platform in India). She posts excessively – good morning updates, posting pictures multiple times in a day, sharing her posts every day, retweeting and sharing others work blindly and excessively – and all this on all relevant platforms. On top of that she started multiple blogs on various themes in due course of time. I was so tired of seeing her updates often in my feed that I had to unfollow her from everywhere…and no regrets for that!

I wouldn’t want to overwhelm my audience. You are on social media for ‘social’ purpose, not just for me! If I don’t care about you, then I don’t deserve you. Think about it!

  1. Make numbers matter – I used to follow a few who have thousands of followers on Twitter. But when they post something, they don’t even get a single ‘favorite’ in the entire day. The reasons could be many – the tweets are automated (and excessive), they don’t interact with others, the followers are not really readers (ever heard of follow for follow), the shares are not really worthy of sharing with others, or the timing is terrible.

I fail to understand what is the point in sharing if nobody is acknowledging it. Do they just want to post blindly? Wouldn’t it be better to post wisely and only what is worthwhile?

Most of my shares are only after I have read somebody’s post and really liked it. That way the quality aspect is guaranteed, and i am glad many of them get read and shared by others too.

  1. No point in pleasing everybody – As much as you would like to visit everybody that comes on your profile, practically, you won’t be able to do it. Even if you are, the fact is some were just looking for a comment or follow back. Rather, do what you can manage in the long term and what you really love to read. I see many just retweeting or sharing multiple posts of a person in succession…seems more of a liability based on give-and-take relationship they have!

Also, one related aspect is you can’t possibly have thousands of friend’s! Check the list of people you follow or are friends with, many won’t even have interacted with you ever. Do you really want to keep them forever?

I never connect with anybody who has poor interaction. Even if I do initially, and there is no interaction from the person for a few months, I am happy to break the virtual bond. I do not want to follow them just because they are following me back!

Image sourced from https://us.fotolia.com/

Planning for Life’s Downs and Combating them Fearlessly

With life comes ups and downs. I bet, there isn’t a single person who has not faced a hardship at some time in their life. However, there would be many who overcome these difficult times happily – for some it is in their upbringing, for others it is a learned aspect. But what I have found is those armed with a plan always go further in life.

I wrote MBA entrance exams (for a full-time program) for the top B-Schools in India in 2006-07. I had prepared for more than 3 years to crack at least one of them. Such was my commitment that I took preparatory books even to the US when I went on a short-term assignment through Wipro in 2005. When I came back to India, I used to study day-in-day-out; even during my commute to the office, I would solve mathematical equations (you see, I didn’t want to leave it to chance).

After relocating to Gurgaon from Bangalore, I left Wipro to join TCS around mid-2006. A major reason was I wanted to join coaching with Career Launcher there, they were the best in India back then. I must have practiced countless Mock tests and Group discussions. I would read The Economic Times daily (I did major in Finance) to learn the financial jargon and improve upon my GK. Just before November, when the exams were about to start, the entire vocabulary from Barrons (3500 words) was on my fingertips.

With more than enough preparation as some would say, I wrote my first exam, the Common Admission Test (CAT). I made a strategic mistake there and knew right away I wouldn’t clear it – with that, making it to the MDI or SP Jain was gone. I learned from the mistake. IIFT entrance was lined-up next and I was prepared even more than before. The remaining followed – NMIMS, JBIMS, FMS, XLRI – until the end of Jan 2007.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I only cleared IIFT. I was within 1,100 selected from more than 45,000 who sat for the exam, for their Interview, Essay Writing and GD process. Well, with no option, I prepared even harder. After going through the second stage, I came to know in March that I am 29th on their waiting list (they had 160 seats). Huh! But I still had hope!

From March to June 2007, as people kept on dropping because of their selection(s) elsewhere, the list kept moving up. I had countless sleepless nights that I can remember. But I never gave up – my Mom and I would just think and pray. She would always say i will make it, she is a very firm believer in God.

My project at work wanted me to fly off to Manchester for a long-term assignment early July. I reluctantly accepted that, on the condition that MBA would take precedence in case I was to be selected. However, I always kept an eye on the waiting list as they could take me in before 2nd July when the classes were to start. On 29th June, I came to know that I have finally made it to IIFT and have to join in 3 days. I was on cloud nine with smiles (and tears). The wait from the last 8 months had come to an end!

Looking back, it was a life-changing event, and I knew it back then as well! You don’t get a call from IIFT easily – they were ranked 6th in India by the Wall Street Journal in 2014, 21st in Asia-Pacific by the QS Global 200 Business Schools report, and were placed in the highest B-school rating category (Super league) by Business Standard last year – these are just a handful of the laurels for this eminent institution.

What I learned is to never give up and to always have a plan or, as the video aptly says, #KhudKoKarBuland…I have fought many tough battles since, but with much less stress and positive outlook, because being prepared has always helped me move forward.

Jokes apart…

I have encountered some incidents in the past that gave me a good laugh. There is learning also in each of them, so they go with the title of my site too 🙂

Let’s delve into them:

1. Prelude: Some of us have a serious issue of not being attentive to others, even in one-to-one conversations. Blame most of it on the use of social media and our wandering thoughts, thus keeping us from being in the present.

Incident: I had a friend of mine from college who came to visit us after he had gotten married also. As soon as we took our seats and were done with basic conversations, we started talking about other friends from college that we were in touch with. He asked about a lady who studied with us and I said ‘She is expecting,’ to which my buddy suddenly replied ‘What is she expecting?’

What happened next? We had an amazing laugh 😀

I checked online too later if ‘she’ and ‘expecting’ can have a different meaning…no, it doesn’t!

Learning: We need to listen intently, especially in one-to-one conversations.

2. Prelude: Few firms like Domino’s and Amazon are planning to use drones for deliveries.

Incident: I was once at an airport in India waiting for my flight. I had these 2 young people from either sex sitting next to me. I think the dude was really trying to impress the lady, so he was being funny every time. They started talking about the concept of Drone that Domino’s was planning to try out for deliveries. The guy immediately exclaimed, “India mein ye system kaam nahin karega. Bachchon ne patthar maar maar ke hi gira dena hai use (in India this system will not work as kids will bring down the drone by pelting stones at it).”

Hahaha…I couldn’t control my laugh!

Learning: One can actually impress a lady by being funny, since he was able to impress a hard nut like me 🙂

3. Prelude: Blogging is not a pass time and it is not just about earning money!

Incident: Sometime back a young lady asked my wife, “aaj-kal blogging me kis cheez ki demand hai? (what is in demand in blogging these days?).”

A related incident is when I heard somebody say to her, “haan kuch to karoge hi ghar baith kar (you ought to do something while sitting at home).”

Well, I can only feel pity on such people because they make writing seem so easy. My response -Try getting a decent reach and readership and then we’ll talk!

Learning: One cannot become famous overnight. It requires hard-work, dedication, persistence, commitment and many other factors. Every famous person we see around went through the same phase!

Let me know which one is your favorite and any inputs are appreciated.

Secret to Happiness

Many of us get angry at people when we don’t hear what we want to hear. It is a very common reaction! This response of ours has built over the years, maybe because of the way we were brought up or just something that we adapted from our environment. But then, we would agree this reaction doesn’t do any good to us; rather, we end up doing terrible to ourselves and those around, even taking an extreme step in some cases. And, most of the times, it cannot change the situation also that led to the reaction in the first place. So why not behave in a way which doesn’t do any harm (mentally or physically) to us or those around? What if we train ourselves to be happy irrespective or at least don’t become red-faced?

I have experimented a lot with my emotions and have been successful at reaching a stage wherein I give it a damn! It is not that I am not taking it seriously, but I am showing least of reactions. Consider, for example, a situation in which I was not extended an Offer Letter for a high profile job because of a last minute policy change by HR of a Bank. I cleared all the rounds of interviews and would have joined as a VP…at my level of experience, it is not common. I talked to the respective contacts multiple times but nothing could be done in the end, since they didn’t want to do an exception for just me. I did feel pretty bad because it would have been a huge jump in my career. But my frustration and anything I could have said would have not altered the situation. So, I accepted my fate and moved on.

There are times when we get angry with our family members. The key to avoid conflicts in such situations is to stop talking immediately and give the conversation a bit of break. Some people take deep breaths also, which helps a lot. Maybe go out and do some shopping (my wife loves to follow this) or just be with nature (as I like to do). In fact, I like to stop the conversation, go out on walks and do others things I love. Sometimes, when you get back together, you will feel the situation is not even worth talking about. At least you have not spoiled your day! If you indeed have to resolve the issue, try dealing with it peacefully.

Another important aspect is to not over-think about anything. We all have limited time in this world, and will not take away anything whatsoever, so why bother? Just calm down and move on…there is always another day. For me, that opportunity could come another day…it might not look that lucrative then, but I cannot change the past. Though I can feel happy that I did pretty well!

Simplicity defined!

Recently, India lost a gem of a person I have ever seen – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. He was the President of India from Jul 2002 – Jul 2007, and was also known as the Missile Man of India because of his significant contributions towards development of ballistic missile and launch vehicle technology.

Since his death a few days back, Social media is flooded with tributes to this great man, the People’s President. It begs to ask why he was so likable. The answer is because of his ‘Simplicity.’

The bookish definition for Simplicity means multiple things in various contexts. However, it all boils down to someone who is uncomplicated.

I consider myself to be simple in life too (not that I am comparing myself to Dr Kalam). Few months back, I started noticing a flood of updates (blind re-tweets, multiple posts shared on various platforms) from somebody I was connected to on those platforms. It may seem alright to some, but such frequent updates from a single person on a daily basis makes others a bit uneasy. Personally, I believe in giving other people some space too…you would not want to see just my updates every day, right? We all want to be connected with most of our friends. I wanted to communicate this to her and a few days back conveyed to her over a text. She hasn’t changed nor replied to my clarifications after her blunt reply, but I am happy the weight is off my chest.

Anyway, the question I asked myself after Dr Kalam’s episode is – Am I a Simple person? Also, is the text to the lady above a reflection of me being Simple? Well, to a certain extent, I believe – Yes. Moreover, I don’t have any flashy habits, I never rip-off poor, you will always see a reply on any sort of help from me, I have helped few people financially (with no expectations in return), and I keep no ill-will against anybody.

But Dr Kalam went beyond these qualities. He was selfless, honest, down-to-earth and always believed in the progress of children, who are the future of any country. He (as a President) once refused to sit on a chair which was larger in size than those of others. The day he passed away, he was concerned about terrorist attacks in India the same morning. If one reads his books and quotes, they are full of motivation and humbleness is very apparent. To me, he was at the same altar as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa…we all know what they did for the society!

If I were to put it simply, ‘Simplicity’ is touching someone’s heart through your actions. It creates an emotional connect.

Though I am not sure where I will end up in life, but at least there is a takeaway here: The lessons for me (and many of us) are simple and clear. If we really want to be remembered after we are gone, we need to do much more than what we have been up to – Make a difference in the World in whatever way we can!