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You suck the same way in Punjabi and Spanish but guess what? Not in Arabic

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By Dr. Asir Ajmal

Having submitted the first draft of my PhD dissertation at Dartmouth College, I was anxious to leave but my supervisor George Wolford told me that I needed at least six more months’s work of solid data analysis and re-writing. Having been in the psychology graduate program for the last four years straight was getting to be too much for me, and I wanted to do something meaningful, so I left to volunteer as a psychologist in Nicaragua, with the hope of returning sometime to complete my dissertation. I subsequently returned after a four year gap and completed my PhD.

As I was learning Spanish in Nicaragua, I noticed many Arabic words. Given that Arabs had ruled Spain for nearly eight hundred years, this was no surprise. What was indeed astonishing was finding a Punjabi word. Chupar means to suck in Spanish and the root choop– means to suck in Punjabi as well. The possibility that the word had come from Arabic in both languages, as the Muslims had ruled both Spain and Punjab, was quickly ruled out. Arabic neither has the ch sound nor does it have the p sound. The Arabs routinely pronounce ch as j and p as b.

So where did the word come from? The answer comes from our common ancestors, the Aryans. They spoke a language called the Indo-European, which then developed into distinct languages such as Latin, Persian and Sanskrit. Incidentally, Arabic does not belong to this group as the Jews, Arabs and Ethiopians constituted a different ethnolinguistic entity.

As I reflected more, I was reminded of my German language class in Heidelberg, where my father had been teaching as a visiting professor. As a curious teenager with a talent for learning syntax and a great memory, I used to bombard my teacher Herbert Adel with questions. As Herbert tried to explain the word Bursche, he said it was impossible to translate it into English. The closest you could come to was a tough guy. As he described ein Bursche, it was clearly a description of the Punjabi equivalent Burchha. I did not know at that time about Indo-European and attributed the similarity between German and Punjabi words to mere coincidence.

I then came across ‘The Origins of Indo-European Languages’ in Scientific American in which Colin Renfrew traced the history of South Asian, Iranian and European languages. And then the classic ‘The Loom of Language’ by Frederick Bodmer. Linguists have since worked on reconstructing Indo-European and they have come up with several hundred words. The root chup- becomes choop and also choos in Punjabi, Urdu/Hindi. It becomes suc– (pronounced sooes) in French and suck in English. While the languages of Eurasia have evolved over centuries into mutually unintelligible entities, the word that represents our first contact with our mothers remains the same.

 

An Ass is an Asset: Old Man from the Past Running Asses Teaches Us How Our Perceptions Can Be a Trap

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The Great Sufi Saint Mullah Nasruddin was a practical joker who taught us many a lesson through his funny stories. Below is one such humorous story full of wisdom:

Nasruddin was a trader who carried stuff from Persia to Greece. He was becoming richer by the day but the tax officials couldn’t figure out how. Each week, Nasruddin would cross the border from Persia into Greece with two donkeys fully loaded with straw and some other junk. The Persian customs officer at the border post would search his stuff thoroughly but he never found anything of substantial value that he could tax. Several years passed. The Mullah was now among the richest men in his region. The customs official had retired and was replaced by a younger officer. One morning, as Mullah was having his breakfast, the retired customs official came to visit. As soon as he sat down, he said: ‘Now that I have retired, I want to know the secret of your success. I promise not to tell anyone. Were you smuggling something from Persia into Greece?’

‘Yes, I was’, Nasruddin said with a smile. ‘I was smuggling donkeys.’

THE MANAGEMENT LESSON

Paradigm shift: Everyone is valuable, do not treat anyone as an ass

This joke has several learning points but the most important message is to give up the one-sided or uni-dimensional categorization of employees as things. Expressions like human resource or human capital betray the underlying assumption that we see our employees as less than human or resources at best. There are many who don’t even do that and count their employees as expense. But both of these positions treat individuals as replaceable objects.

Each individual is unique, born with unique talents and abilities. Instead of discovering their true abilities, we try and motivate them through carrot and stick towards meeting our targets. But carrot and stick can only motivate jackasses. Human beings need much more: they need respect, they need understanding and much more than anything else, they need opportunities to unleash their natural talent. This can be achieved through training and capacity building. If this talent will remain dormant and undiscovered, they will be worth nothing, like the donkeys which were worthless in the eyes of the customs official. But they will add value beyond one’s wildest imagination if they are treated with trust, respect and openness.

 

Mind Games Will Train Your Staff to be Happy & Engaged While You Get Great Results

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I was training a group of professionals from a multinational corporation on communication skills when I made an astonishing discovery: Most people with engineering or business degrees knew nothing about how their minds worked. They all thought that we psychologists have some thing to do with “treating people with mental problems” but not much else.

When I gave them the personal SWOT task, in which they had to identify their own personal strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, there were many who had never thought about their weaknesses, and some who had never considered more than two or three strengths, NEVER!

An engineer got up and admitted that he was finding it very hard to identify three weaknesses in himself. And while I was trying to hide my sense of shock and amazement, several people nodded and affirmed that the task was also difficult for them.

This was quite shocking!!!

But this is not just about knowledge of psychology, the discipline, it is about self-awareness. This awareness of oneself does have a great deal to do with self-knowledge. So what does one do about it?

I went home and thought about this problem long and hard, and eureka, I had discovered the answer. I was going to provide training to professionals with a science and/or business background focusing on self-awareness and  psychological issues. On top of the list was the following question:

How can training help me manage my emotions?

On the surface, it may sound like a simple question. In reality, this question is something humanity has struggled with since the dawn of civilization. Be it sadness, anger, hostility, fear, or even positive emotions such as joy, ecstasy or excitement, history is witness to the fact that not a lot of people have been successful to find the right balance. The above question is also asked in a different manner albeit in a positive tone?

How can training make me happy?

Happiness is the gold that the alchemists of yore sought to produce. Happiness is what we seek on a daily basis and it seems to elude the very best and the most successful among us. For we seek it not in ourselves but in the outside world. We will discuss this question further in my future blogs but for now suffices to say that the modern science of positive psychology has taken a page out of traditional sciences and dug up treasures hidden inside the human soul.

How do I control my anger?

If one factor could be blamed for ruining the majority of human relationships, it would be anger. Be it father and son, husband and wife, mother and daughter, brother and sister, or the relationship between two best friends, the emotion that sabotages the closest of relationships more than any other is anger.

Does my mind affect my body?

While I am skeptical of pseudo-scientific theories like the law of attraction, the secret etc., there is something to be said for the effects our thoughts and mental processes have on our bodies. Many professionals in South Asia do not take seriously the concept of psychosomatic illness and constantly search for the hidden ailment that is eating them alive, usually without success.

There are many such questions that psychologists are working on finding the answers to. We have found a great many answers and many of these reside in the traditional texts of ancient religions and spiritual practices. And at the same time, modern science has helped us discover new phenomena.

With this blog, I hope to supplement my training workshops and reach a much larger audience. I hope this helps people learn more about themselves and thereby improve their quality of life. It will enable them to be happy and the organizations they work for will get engaged employees yielding great results.

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7 Stupid Ideas Celebrities Believe but You Should NEVER, Under any Circumstances!

By Dr. Asir Ajmal

Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was truly a classic. It was based on his research. Since then, the formula ‘x things y people do’ has been so over-used that seeing another number with habits, things, words simply makes me nauseous. What are the habits of a celebrity? The assumption behind this question is that if you acquired these habits, you would somehow become successful and /or famous just like the celebrity whose habits you worked so hard to integrate into your routine.

Who are these successful and famous people and why do they always do seven or eight things, sometimes even ten things. And what are those things really? Rolf Dobelli in his book ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’ published by Harper, takes apart many of the myths circulating in the media, pop psych literature and the internet about successful people. This article is inspired by his bestselling book.

Successful people brush their teeth for one. If they didn’t, their teeth will look yellow and their breaths would smell and therefore, people will reject them.They also refrain from screaming and shouting in public. If they yell at their employees, they certainly don’t do it on camera otherwise they would never be successful.

Well these were two things all great and successful people have in common. But let us now look at 7 stupid things celebrities believe (and are successful in spite of these), and even many unsuccessful people consider these as true (perhaps that is the reason for their failure):

1. The habits of successful people somehow lead them to success. If we are talking about financial success, evidence points to er.. randomness. Nassim Nicholas Talib in his book ‘The Black Swan’ argues that there is so much randomness and near chaos in the financial world, that for anyone to predict – based on a given number of habits – that someone will be a success is next to impossible.

2. People who believe in themselves always succeed. It might be a good idea to believe in oneself, it keeps you motivated for one. Yet most start-ups fail because people believe in themselves a bit too much, do not pay attention to frugality and throw caution to the wind. One out of five start-ups fails in the first year. I personally know many people who face financial difficulties while running a supposedly profitable business, and believe in themselves more than they should, ending up with serious cash flow problems several times in a year. Isn’t history full of martyrs who believed they were going to win?

3. Team work is better than individual work. This belief is also absolute nonsense, unless you are Japanese or work in some really progressive organizations. I know at least one organization in Pakistan which has mastered team work almost to perfection, and that is the Maple Leaf Group. Pretty much everywhere else, it’s a nightmare.

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Team work in America, Europe and most of Asia and Africa, means that one or two people in the team do most of the work while others chill out. In psychology, we call it diffusion of responsibility. In my psychology class, I have noticed this phenomenon in group assignments every single time. I am sure teachers all over the world would bear witness to this. In Japan, people work well in teams. I work closely with an organization in Pakistan which seems to have its act right as far as team work is concerned. Everywhere else, individuals put in less effort in teams than when they are working alone.

Apart from diffusion of responsibility, there are many reasons for this. For one, individual accountability is virtually impossible in a team effort. Then the phenomenon of group-speak, when people tend to agree in groups to something they wouldn’t accept under normal circumstances, means sometimes they would just give in to more dominant members of the group. Team work in such situations turns into a dictatorship of the team leader.

So if you want to make team work a success, put people with different sets of skills together. Teams that comprise only one skill type, have few workers and many talkers, leading to inefficiency and greater conflict. Every member of team must also be held accountable for individual performance. These are some of the lessons we have learned from research on team work.

If these factors are taken into account, teams can and do out-produce their competitors up to not by a factor of 10x but 100x.

4. Success stories tell us how to achieve success. They don’t. People who have failed do not write books about how they failed. Only successful people do. And stories are exactly that, they are stories. Most are constructed in hindsight. The fact that our memories are imperfect and self-serving adds to the conundrum. At best, success stories help successful people make sense of their experience of achievement. For others, they are not worth much.

Next time you pick up a biography to peruse through, read it with a grain of salt.

5. Consensus is better than majority, and majority is better than minority. We believe in democracy as a political system and therefore assume that the above principle is valid ubiquitously. Not true. History is full of examples where most people on any given issue were wrong but an inventor or innovator proved them wrong. I still recall how in the Dartmouth Community for Divestment, a group of students protesting against Dartmouth College’s investments in companies doing business in the Apartheid-ruled South Africa in the 1980’s, the requirement of decision making by consensus led to paralysis most of the time. It was only on few occasions, that bold decisions were made, and that too by few individuals acting independently.

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Again, I am not denying the value of consultation, only that important decisions must not be left to consensus-based process, which is not only inefficient but also renders people vulnerable to hidden agendas of de facto leaders.

6. If something is unlikely, it wont happen. Whenever someone suggests something unlikely, the experts pounce on them. These self-appointed gurus of the world calculate probabilities and predict what is likely to happen. But they are mostly wrong, because the unpredictable always happens. The unpredictable does not follow the laws of probability.

This is the central theme of many of Nassim Talib’s books who is the professor of uncertainty at MIT. It is the unlikely event that changes the course of history precisely because it is unexpected.

Businesses that thrive on predictability and reliability collapse sooner or later. Companies that seek to renew themselves every once in a while are not necessarily fluid but are anti-fragile. They thrive on uncertainty.

7. You will succeed if you plan well and think of every eventuality. Wrong again. One cannot possibly think of every eventuality, since the realm of possibilities is infinite. And even the best made plans are doomed to failure, if something unforeseen comes your way and you are not ready for it, which ironically is always highly likely.

Almost every business in the capitalist world starts with a business plan. The plans are as detailed as they can be and the lenders assess these for loans and credit against tools that are very risk averse. Yet a majority of these fail soon after they are launched.

There are in reality many others stupid things intelligent people believe because there are many books and articles proclaiming these things. And just because something is written in a book, doesn’t make it true.

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Do You Like Indian Food? Thank the gods for America

By Dr Asir Ajmal

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When reading about myths and legends of ancient India, I have often read accounts of what people wore in those days. And there are descriptions of rituals and customs. But hardly ever is there a description of foods in enough detail to ascertain what kinds of dishes people ate and what the ingredients were. What did Rama like to eat? What was Krishna’s favorite dish apart from homemade butter? Did Arjuna eat beaf in secret or was he a total veg as most high caste Hindus would like to believe.

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And I was shocked to find out that it could not have been aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower). And it was certainly not aloo chholay (potatoes and chickpeas). Why am I so certain that the human incarnations of Lord Vishnu, namely Rama and Krishna never got to eat these dishes? The answer is simple; potatoes were not eaten in India at the time. In fact, potatoes were never eaten in India before Columbus discovered America.

Potatoes were indigenous to South America and were unheard of in Europe, Asia or Africa before the sixteenth century AD. They were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. From there they spread like wildfire to the colonies in Asia and Africa and became part of regional cuisines.

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OK, fine. So potato was not eaten in ancient India. Big deal. But I am sure that Krishna couldn’t resist a nice curry made of tomatoes and chickpeas. Oops! Wrong again!!!

While chickpeas were commonly eaten in India at the time, tomatoes were not. Tomato was also indigenous to America and was brought to India by the Europeans. Tomato, without which no Indian dish seems complete, was not Indian either, unless you are using the word Indian to refer to native Americans or American Indians.

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Right. I give up. But one thing I am still sure of. Their favorite dishes must have been hot and spicy as hell, right?

Wrong, yet again. It is true people used a lot of spices in Indian cooking but how hot could it really be without red hot chili peppers? Chili peppers were also brought to India by the colonizers. These were soon incorporated into the local cuisine just like their cousins, potatoes and tomatoes, and have continued to rule South Asian palate long after the end of colonial rule.

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But the list does not end here. What about Corn? Obviously the gods in their human form must have enjoyed makai ki roti (unleavened corn bread) with gandlaan da saag (mustard greens). They would have if corn had also not been indigenous to America.

Next time when you sit down to eat Indian/ Pakistani food, make sure to thank God for giving us America; for without it not even gods could eat aloo bhaji or bhindi tamaatar.

A version of this post has been already published on my blog on linkedin.

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Part Time Love in Pakistan

couple-engagement-kissing-18396Forbidden Love & Marriage in The Islamic Republic

Dr Asir Ajmal

I was in the midst of developing an interdisciplinary course on Culture and Psychology at GCU Lahore, Pakistan.. Instead of just looking at things like intelligence or emotion across culture, I wanted this course to go deeper and be closer to real life. As I was looking for material on Literature and Psychology, I discovered an Urdu short story called Tikon (The Triangle) by Dr. Amjad Tufail, a Pakistani short story writer and a psychologist.

The story described a marriage in which the husband, on his dying bed, was regretting not having left his wife earlier. The wife, having left her lover, was perpetually embarrassed, and was devoted to caring for her dying husband. The lover was aimlessly loitering, wondering why he came between the two in the first place.

The setting was, indeed, a city in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Many students were shocked to discover that infidelity may have been a common enough phenomenon to merit a short story.

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Then one day, in my Qualitative Research class, a student by the name of Zainee Tariq asked me if she could do her project on extramarital affairs. She was concerned that, Pakistan being a religious country, she wouldn’t find many willing subjects. Since this was only a small scale research project, designed to teach them qualitative research, I asked her to find a cheating couple in which both partners were married to other people.

Not only did she find such a couple, she was shocked by what she found. The guy in this adulterous relationship was sleeping with several other married women and the woman’s sister, also married, was also involved with another man. All of a sudden, the problem seemed to be much more common than previously assumed.

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The woman was married to a heroin addict, a man who was never home. She needed emotional intimacy. The man was married to a woman who didn’t enjoy sex. He needed sex. Over time, however, the two had started to enjoy and crave both sex and intimacy.

While pondering this thought, a close friend referred a 40 years old client for depression. She was depressed because her boyfriend was getting married. This would not have shocked me if I hadn’t known that the woman was married. She had been married for 10 years and had been cheating on her husband for nearly eight. ‘Doesn’t he suspect anything?’ I asked, given the duration of the deceptive behavior. ‘He is so stupid he doesn’t have a clue. And he is out of town a lot, because of his business, you know.’

My client had had several ‘boyfriends’ since her marriage whom she ‘loved madly.’ And each time a boyfriend got married, she got depressed. This time too, her latest boyfriend, had gotten married and ended the affair. All her boyfriends had been in their 20’s.

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A year later, as i was taking research students for supervision, Anila Azmat, a student from Kinnaird College said she wanted to research why married people have affairs. Anila’s thesis found that one of the main reasons for marital infidelity seems to be loveless arranged marriages. Arranged marriage is still the norm in Pakistan. A boy and girl, who don’t know each other at all are bound together in holy matrimony by their parents.

It is no wonder then that the divorce rate is rising also. While many women adopt the route of deception and cheat on their husbands, many others simply walk out.

It is indeed one of the ironies of life in Pakistan. The Taliban, the religious fanatics are demanding the rule of Shariah, the Islamic law, while ordinary people continue to live their lives, driven by pleasure, lust, intimacy and happiness.

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Masturbation superhighway leads Guys and Girls Straight to Hell

"Girl looking at her-phone"

By Dr. Asir Ajmal

They boy was sixteen. He looked upset, dark circles around his eyes bore witness to many a sleepless night in front of his laptop. He hesitated a bit, uneasy in his seat, and then confessed. “I am a sinner. I commit the sin every day and then repent. Everyday I promise Allah that I won’t do it again. But I am not strong enough. I switch on the laptop and there I go again.” This was a few years ago. More recently, the culprit is not the computer, but the mobile phone and the teenagers, boys and girls are caught up in an addiction to viewing sexually explicit material on ther phones followed by masturbation.

This story is so common in Pakistan that every therapist reading it can relate. They must have seen tens of such clients if not more. And the problem is invariably giving into the carnal sin, but this sin, as one boy put it, is self-abuse.

It is not guilt alone that causes the distress. An incredible amount of pain is caused by the erroneous belief that somehow the act of masturbation is causing their bodies to erode from within, sapping all their strength. The idea that they would not only burn in hell in the afterlife, because they have sinned, but that their health is also being ruined in this world, is ironically responsible for ruining their mental health.

These erroneous and misinformed beliefs cause so much misery that these boys over time end up with extreme anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms.

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The problem is that even among psychologists in Pakistan, there is no consensus on the issue, let alone among parents, teachers, priests or doctors. I once attended a workshop where the psychologist suggested removing the door from the boy’s bedroom and depriving him of privacy in order to prevent the “vice of self-abuse”. She even suggested that the boy be made to put on boxing gloves to keep his hands away from mischief.

I was shocked and when I complained to a senior psychologist, who incidentally was a Freudian– I expected him to understand– he said he didn’t agree with me that masturbation was a harmless act. After all, was it not Freud who had said that masturbation weakens the personality and causes neurasthenia?

ISLAM DOES NOT FORBID IT.

On the issue of Islam, I found many religious sources that declared masturbation as not sinful. Some even argued that masturbation was a protection against fornication and adultery, and was therefore certainly not a sin, if not a virtue.

GIRLS ALSO SUFFER FROM GUILT & MISCONCEPTIONS

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When an earlier version of this article was first published, a woman, also a clinical psychologist, commented that in her view it was a harmful act not only for boys and men, but also for women. She thought that girls experience infertility and other gynecological complications because of masturbation.

There is absolutely no basis to such claims. Also from am an Islamic point of view, one can see how if the logic of prevention of adultery applies to men, it can be applied to women also.

SEX EDUCATION IS NEEDED EVEN FOR PSYCHOLOGISTS

I educate such clients about the harmlessness of masturbation both in physical as well as religious sense. Educating young men about sex and masturbation is something most Pakistani psychologist have to do at some point in their careers. I wonder if psychologists understand their responsibility to first educate themselves about sex and sex education. It will do them, their partners, and their clients some good.

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