Jugaad – what India has taught me about learning and rules

It’s been a busy fall. I’ve worked intensely on a complete overhaul of everything to do with payments in zenbilling. In addition to that, I’m learning Spanish, Sanskrit, and Kannada. And, of course, I still get up at 3.30 in the morning six days a week to practice yoga. And there’s a local Mysore branch of a European software company that I’ve started collaborating with, which is fun. I’ve been invited to talk at a local business school. And we’ve moved in to a new (and empty) house. So lots of stuff to see to. How’s your fall been so far? :)

Jugaad

There’s an Indian phenomenon called jugaad, which I’ve given a bit of thought to. It’s an area where we westerners can learn a lot from Indians – and where we can probably teach them a few things as well. Jugaad is the ability to come up with simple and creative solutions on the spot.

Banana cart during Dasara festival in Mysore

Here’s an example that happened to me a few days ago:

This past Monday, as we came home after attending an inaugural lecture at a local business school, the kids from the house across the street came running towards us yelling “current bill, current bill”. It took me a while to understand that the electric meter man had been by and left us a bill. No problem. I went to pay it a few hours later. Payment happens at a small office at the local water tower, and I’d just been there the day before to pay the water bill. It’s very near.

We didn’t make much of the fact that the fridge and the electric kettle didn’t have power. Power outages happen all the time, and when they do, the stronger current used by these appliances aren’t covered by the battery backup.

But as the sun was setting, suddenly the rest of the house was without power, and we were left in the dark. I called up the electrician who did the wiring of the house, and he was able to come by a half hour later. Turns out that the electric meter man had cut power to our house hours earlier, but because of the battery backup (and frequent power cuts on normal days) we hadn’t noticed! And it turns out, the way they cut power is to simply remove a big fuse in the meter box outside the house. Jugaad! :)

But that also means that our electrician could out-jugaad their jugaad: He simply put a neat yellow cable where the fuse used to be. Problem solved!

A yellow cable where the fuse used to be

It’s the same with many other things. How are street lamps turned on and off? A guys zips around on a motor cycle and flips a switch on the light mast. How did our gas cylinder get delivered? I met with a guy on a scooter with the gas cylinder by his feet. We met at Doctor’s Corner – a well-known landmark – and I directed him to our house on my scooter.

They’re not big on addresses here. I mean, they have them, and I guess the mail man knows how they translate to real-world locations. But most locals don’t. They rely and landmarks and directions. Him: “At what landmark, sir?” Me: “Doctor’s Corner?” Him: “Okay. Five minutes.” Me: “Okay.” That’s how I got our gigantic 6 by 7 feet mattress delivered as well – strapped onto the roof of a rickshaw. I wish I had a photo of that! Instead, here’s my friend Harsha drawing a map to direct the delivery of my desk:

Traffic, India-style

And then there’s the traffic! Rules aren’t something people seem to fuss a whole lot about. They will stop at a red light, most of the time, but that’s about it. Lanes aren’t taken terribly seriously. One way streets – yeah, unless I happen to be going the opposite direction, and it’s only a few hundred meters, out it would be too much of a bother to go right way – or if there’s a cop right there! If there’s a tiny gap in the traffic, you take it, a you throw yourself in there, and the other motorists will have to make room for you. Just don’t look back, and you’ll be fine. Regardless of the vehicle, we can always fit another person or a bit more stuff on there. Especially if it’s a rickshaw.

But what’s so magic about is that it actually works out really really well. And it’s tons of fun, too – way better than Tivoli or Disney world or something like that. And the fact that the danger is kinda real just makes it so much better. It’s a joy each time we go to downtown Mysore.

Check out this wonderful video showing the traffic in this country:

What’s so great is that, instead of having to deal with rules, which may or may not make sense in this situation, which may or may not be politically more than practically influenced, and which have to be learned, you just relate with what’s directly in front of you, and deal with that. You allow your instinct and intuition and experience and training to guide you, and you do what’s right – using the rules as flexible guidelines, not set-in-stone. And everyone else does the same, and everything works out, in part because friendliness and respect and the desire to make things work is solidly founded in hindu culture. And that’s something we Danes and other westerners could learn from. In Denmark, it’s pretty common to actively obstruct other drivers if you think they’re not following the rules. Everyone is actively policing each other. Here, there’s none of that. The police is policing, and that’s plenty of annoying. So long as the police isn’t around, we just do make it work.

All in all, it’s a very straightforward and fearless way to live life, and I love it – big time.

When jugaad fails

Jugaad has some severe shortcomings, too. I’ve seen lots of code written by Indian programmers, and it frequently makes me cringe. Actually, my very first job when I started my consulting company back in 2002 was to look over the code produced by an Indian outsourcing firm for Greenpeace International, and help them determine how to move forward with it. Could it be salvaged?

Thums up!

While Jugaad can be an excellent tool – including in business and software – it mustn’t become an excuse to not understand things thoroughly. Only when we fully understand why things are the way they are, and why they behave the way they do, can real creation begin. And creation is what both programming and entrepreneurship is all about.

Most of us have negative feelings about learning that keeps us from learning new stuff. “It’s too difficult, I don’t have time, it’s painful, I can’t do this, I’ll never learn!” Most of us have left school with a sense of failure and defeat, and never fully recover. With good reason. Many schools are great at taking the joy out of learning.

Since living in New York City back in the year 2000, I’ve wanted to learn Spanish, but I’ve never taken that first step. Only now that I’ve gotten to India (!) did I finally take the plunge. And yes, there’s so much to learn. But I’ve discovered that whenever I sit down on my butt and just study, I do learn pretty quickly. And what happens is, I love it. I love how my world expands, and something that was black art becomes a matter of practicality, something that I can see a clear path to achieving.

It’s the same with some of the other things I’m learning right now. Sanskrit. Photography, especially editing. And of course, yoga, which makes it abundantly clear to me that I’m much more used to learning with my head than with my body – but it’s a nice change of pace.

The anatomical reason that asians are better at math

I read a theory somewhere – I think it was Gladwell – that the reason asians are better at math than westerners is that they’re better at sitting down on their butts until their figure it out. And the reason for that is that they’ve grown up with rice fields, which has the quality where the more you nurture them and work on them, the better the outcome, and the more batches you can make using the same soil per year, the better. Whereas western agriculture has the opposite quality: You don’t want to mess too much with it, or you risk destroy it, and fields have to lie fallow every once in a while or their return starts to fall. That becomes part of the culture and the way you approach life in general.

Sitting down and slogging it out

There’s so much power in deciding that you will learn this thing, that you’ve wanted to learn for a while, but you’ve secretly feared that it would be too hard and you’d never learn. To say, dammit, I will learn this, no matter how long it takes. Every time you conquer such a frontier, there’s a rush of energy, and the confidence to go out and tackle the next one. When you stop growing and learning is when you start dying.

Combine learning with the ability to think for yourself, to make decisions based on your own values, your own thought process, and your own judgments, and you’re well on your own to finding your own truth and living a life in alignment with who you really are and what you’re here to become and to express. And isn’t that what we’re all here for?

I think so.

Namaste,
-Calvin

PS. Shit, did I just end a blog post with “namaste”? :)

PPS.