Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pursuit of Excellence vs Guzara: How to teach excellence through everyday examples

This is late 1979, I had completed my intermediate, and my father had retired from his government job in Islamabad. We were moving back to Karachi from Islamabad via train in a reserved coupe of the economy class. The train system was already in a fast decline then. Gone were the days when the reserved compartments only had passengers with confirmed seats. Our
Coupe of the Train
reserved compartment was full of people standing and sitting on floor without reservation or even without tickets. My father had already complained to the ticket checker several times but to no avail. We had put a bedcover in front of the coupe as a curtain to gain some privacy. There were people standing and slowly nudging closer and closer to our reserved seats. One of them asked for the  space to sit on our reserved berth saying "guzara karna hai" (need to just get along). The word "guzara" somehow got my father to explode and he viciously turned the person down. I did not understand why my father, who was otherwise so considerate, got so much angry; after all it was just a matter of some space on the berth for a few hours. I could not understand then that it had to do with the use of the word "guzara", and the attitude associated with it. But, now several decades later, having seen the continuous decline in the quality of the services and products all around, whether government or private, I have come to the conclusion that this word "guzara" has become the bane of our existence, it is a malaise that is afflicting our society and eating its foundations.


Guzara means to subsist, to get along at the minimum level, devoid of any effort to improve, and lacking any motivation to change. This word has so much defeatism ingrained in it that it is exasperating. We as a nation are practicing "guzara". In Pakistan whenever two people meet, they often ask "how are you". The reply often is "guzara hay", "theek hay". We as a nation (min hais ul qaum) indulge in "guzara". This culture of guzara is evident everywhere: The deterioration of our roads, our schools and colleges, our government offices, our clogged storm water drains, our dilapidated drainage system, the contamination of our water supply system,  our polluted streams, our crumbling parks, our eroding jungles, our deteriorating trains, our intermittent electricity supply, our chaotic traffic, our untrustworthy leaders, our excruciating justice system, our non-existent law and order, our leaky intelligence agencies, our weak defences, and the list goes on and on.

I now try to visualize the pain that my father who was meticulous and perfectionist, must have gone through as he saw before his eyes the persistent downslide of the government services and his powerlessness. "Guzara" had been the operative justification for every compromise that our governments have been making in every sphere of public life throughout the sixties and increasingly during the seventies. The pace of this deterioration then accelerated and the destruction of most of our institutions and industry is now visible all around us. Unless we drastically revolutionize our thinking and the operative state of "guzura" is transformed into "an unrelenting pursuit of excellence", we have no hope for the future.

Here I would explain how I personally learned the real import of that pent up anger that my father displayed so many decades ago. How these small incidences that I now cherish, but did not have the capacity to value them when they happened, taught me about the pursuit of excellence.

Long time ago in Islamabad, when I must have been seven or eight, my father noticed that my shoes were not properly cleaned and polished. He sat down and made me sit down with him also. He then showed me how shoes should be shined. He went through the whole protocol of how to shine the shoes. First he explained that in the shoe box there are three types of cleaning cloths. One is used to remove the mud sticking to the shoes by dampening the cloth and carefully wiping it. This should be kept only for this kind of heavy duty cleaning that is typically required during the rainy season. The other cloth is for drying and dusting off the dirt and must always be used before the application of polish. The two cloths can not be interchanged! Then, there needs to be one brush for applying the polish and spreading it evenly all around the shoe taking care that no place is left out. Once the polish is applied, wait for a minute or two to let the polish soak in the shoe skin. Then use the brush for bringing on the shine through brush strokes in a broader gentle sweeps over the surface. This should be done with swinging motion and with persistence to reveal the shine that a leather shoe deserves. Finally, a gentle rub with the shining cloth to enable you to see your face in the shiny surface of the shoe. He would get irritated when we would interchange the cloths or the brushes or would lose one or the other. Use of each of these items  in their proper sequence is essential for the proper shine. This was a lesson in excellence and in persistence which is required to bring alive a shoe. [As I recall this lesson, I always remember the soothingly gentle voice of Robert Fulgham as he read that brief evocative account of polishing the stick in the audio version of his book "All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten".]

The shoe shining lesson was not only meant for me. Often a close relative coming to our house with shoes not properly polished, would get a special treatment. He would command us to bring the shoe box. The visitor was requested to take off the shoes and then I would be asked to get down to polishing the shoes of the visitor. At that time, I felt so much embarrassment in doing this menial work, not realizing the embarrassment the visitor must have been feeling. The embarrassment was enough for the visitor not to come again without proper shining shoes. Some of our more closer relatives would enter from the backdoor and we would conspire with them in getting their shoes shined unbeknown to my father. The relative would then make a formal entry with his shining shoes from the front door.


Sirkanda type pen
My Urdu handwriting in those early days was pathetic. First he asked our molvi sahib to get me a sirkanda pen, but that was too messy with ink spilling all over. Then we got the metal pen nibs that go in front of the wooden holder.  One day my father sat down with me to show  how to write with the z-nib that is used for Urdu script. He pulled out an old khuskhati book that had Persian couplets written using the measurements for how to write each Urdu letter. I tried a few times the way he taught me. But, then in my characteristic hurry without following the instruction I wrote some letters my way. The result was as you expect, miserable. I got a scolding about the way I had make the curve of Urdu "noon". I still remember my tries and my failures. However, I gave up too early. Took the scolding to my heart, cried and did not go back to him for learning the handwriting any more. My loss.

Had I put in those few weeks of effort, my handwriting would have been much better. Later, I tried hard several times to learn it on my own. I used to write letters from USA to my father and mother about once every fortnight. I bought the calligraphic pens and some beautiful paper. I tried my best to apply the rules of writing that I remembered. The result was of course much better but not what it would have been had I persisted initially with my father.  I was in USA for about seven years and the letters that I used to write regularly now fill several box files. These were properly filed by my father and given back to me when I returned. I still have them and cherish them. I still try to improve my writing whenever I get the time, recalling all the time the value of the effort that should have been put originally.

Once I went to my father for correcting an essay that I had written as part of my school homework. The amount of time that he took in correcting the essay, the number of times that he actually improved the passage, and the number of alterations that he made consumed a couple of hours. I originally thought that going to him would be a short-cut and he would improve my essay quickly and then I can run away to play. But, the long drawn out experience convinced me that it is much more tedious and lengthy exercise to get something improved by him, and started avoiding him for such work. The habit of "guzara" was actually in the process of being formed. I think that was the last time in Pakistan anyone corrected my writing completely to the level of perfection. I went on submitting the homework in school and would regularly appear in exams, months after months, years after years. My writings would come back to me with grades assigned that would vary from 4 out of 10 or 8 out of 10, but they were never returned to me for improving and resubmitting. There was never an expectation of strive for excellence and effort to write flawlessly. I never had anyone doing the postmortem of my writing in Pakistan the way my father did at that time with that essay. However, I was in for a rude shock when I went for my PhD:

I did my matric with distinction from Sargodha Board and was a position holder in Intermediate from Federal Board in 1979. I was again a position holder in my Engineering and also finished among the top during my MBA. During all these studies I was submitting reports that were being checked and marks awarded. I also got selected for Science and Technology scholarship and went to Univ of Texas at Austin for my masters and then PhD. I completed my masters from UT, but the reality check came when I got enrolled in my PhD research. The first progress report that I sent to my supervisor J.C. Browne came back to me all in red. There were at least five correction on every line that I have written on those three pages of the report. This was a huge embarrassment for me who thought of himself as a position holder. In Urdu slang, "meri baezti kharab ho gai!"; a Computer Science professor pointing out so many English mistakes was highly embarrassing. This made me scurry to the library. I pulled out a couple of books. One, I remember was from the person who was instrumental in improving and simplifying the English used in official communications and forms in USA. Using these guides, I quickly revised all the grammatical rules that I had known all along, but had never been compelled to apply them diligently and meticulously in Pakistan. I took it as a challenge not to have my next progress report returned with so many red marks and corrections from my supervisor. I think my effort in due diligence made a difference because my next report did not have as many mistakes. It was then that I got down to improving my writing and improving it to make it flawless. I still remember revising my abstract of my first research paper several hundred times. Each reading revealed so many mistakes and I tried to put in all the 7Cs the best I can. The practice hardened when I made my dissertation draft to go through countless revisions before submissions.

Even today each time I read my posts, I find so many flaws and so many things that I need to improve in each subsequent reading. Had I developed in me that habit of writing diligently and immaculately as my father tried to teach me long time ago, I would not have had to struggle so much in my PhD, or now. But, better late than never. I also recall the importance of this meticulousness that I learned in my interactions with the Great Dijkstra as mentioned in my post Beauty is Our Business.

Now when I see my students bring to me the research that often resembles what I wrote the first time, the guzara way, they are made to go through the same corrections that I went through. I feel the same exasperation that I saw my father exhibiting so many years ago. I often relate the above stories and try to teach them that this "guzara" is a bane of our existence that is eating the roots of every thing that we do, and destroying the foundation of every institution that we have. Unrelenting pursuit of excellence must become part and parcel of our life. Unless we learn to do every thing with excellence the results would not be much different. Excellence is about continuously trying to improve yourself. Trying your best not to make the same mistake twice, trying to continually refine what you are doing. Excellence is not about trying to do a particular thing well, on a particular day or time. It is an attitude. It is a habit that should become part and parcel of our life and we should be defined by this pursuit of excellence:


"We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". 
--- Aristotle


PS: Excellence in Office Communication of Mr Ahsan Hyder

An Incident Received via Email from Mr Irtiqa Ahmed Zaidi and copied here:

Irfan,thank you very much for such a detailed and informative mail on Ahsan Bhai. I learned a lot from this great person. We all are proud of him. I had been very close to him. I was posted as Research Officer at Islamabad in Feb 1971, and I stayed with him at his house. You must be remembering those days. I learnt a lot from him during this period of 35 days, before I got the house with a colleague on sharing basis, and then finally getting a D type flat allotted. I liked him very much because at least one thing was common among us. We both were "A type" personality, defined by psychiatrists as a person who can not settle for less than perfection. I remember an episode: I went to his room in Ministry of Finance in Block Q, Pak Sectt. He was working as Section Officer in Debt Management Section of Ministry of Finance. He was busy in giving dictation to his steno typist on some important case. He asked me to sit down and continued the dictation. After the dictation, the steno went and came back with the type written draft which he changed around 80 per cent of his own dictated draft. And later revised four more such drafts. After finalizing the eventual draft, he signed the file and sent that to his Deputy Secretary. I stayed in his room for about 30 minutes discussing inter-alia the reason for revising the draft so many times. He told me that he makes sure that the draft should be a perfection so that his superiors should not be bothered to make any changes. This was true as the same file came to his seat travelling via the onward and backward journey from Deputy Secretary to Joint Secretary to Additional Secretary and Secretary. In those days movement of files was very quick. Now a file takes minimum 2-3 days to travel from Section Officer to Secretary and back. His draft was approved without a touch of pen by any of his superiors. His superiors had a lot of regards for him because of his hard work, commitment and dedication to work. He started his service in Finance and retired from there because no Deputy Secretary could afford to loose him, that is why his transfer orders were always cancelled by his superiors. Perhaps he created history of the longest service in Finance Ministry. 
God bless him, and grant a place in heaven. Ameen


See also:





15 comments:

  1. made wordless, being a student of language feeling embarrassed, The struggle to achieve excellence comes within and only some greats have been bestowed with these intuition, unfortunately the word "guzara" has become so integral in our lives, we no longer seek for excellence, not even rasing better against "guzara"

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    1. I am continuously trying to fight against this when students come to me with their "guzara" writing. They could have done better, but they never exerted enough to come up to their own level, not to speak about excelling it.

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  2. If this life is just a delusion, then keeping the end in mind, guzara may be the prudent and safest thing to do?
    Or ... as usual ... have I got it wrong yet again?

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    1. A Psalm of Life: [Longfellow. 1807–1882]

      What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

      TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
      Life is but an empty dream!—
      For the soul is dead that slumbers,
      And things are not what they seem.

      Life is real! Life is earnest! 5
      And the grave is not its goal;
      Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
      Was not spoken of the soul.

      Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
      Is our destined end or way; 10
      But to act, that each to-morrow
      Find us farther than to-day.

      Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
      And our hearts, though stout and brave,
      Still, like muffled drums, are beating 15
      Funeral marches to the grave.

      In the world's broad field of battle,
      In the bivouac of Life,
      Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
      Be a hero in the strife! 20

      Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
      Let the dead Past bury its dead!
      Act,—act in the living Present!
      Heart within, and God o'erhead!

      Lives of great men all remind us 25
      We can make our lives sublime,
      And, departing, leave behind us
      Footprints on the sands of time;

      Footprints, that perhaps another,
      Sailing o'er life's solemn main, 30
      A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
      Seeing, shall take heart again.

      Let us, then, be up and doing,
      With a heart for any fate;
      Still achieving, still pursuing, 35
      Learn to labor and to wait.

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    2. WOW! I am left breathless and speechless.

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  4. Insightful ! Indeed, mediocrity hurts, and satisfaction to the mediocre level of mediocrity hurts even more.

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    1. How do we change the trend is our challenge.

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  5. From Mr Irtiqa Ahmed Zaidi received via email and is being copied here:
    Irfan,thank you very much for such a detailed and informative mail on Ahsan Bhai. I learned a lot from this great person. We all are proud of him. I had been very close to him. I was posted as Research Officer at Islamabad in Feb 1971, and I stayed with him at his house. You must be remembering those days. I learnt a lot from him during this period of 35 days, before I got the house with a colleague on sharing basis, and then finally getting a D type flat allotted. I liked him very much because at least one thing was common among us. We both were "A type" personality, defined by psychiatrists as the person who can not settle for less than perfection. I remember an episode: I went to his room in Ministry of Finance in Block Q, Pak Sectt. He was working as Section Officer in Debt Management Section of Ministry of Finance. He was busy in giving dictation to his steno typist on some important case. He asked me to sit down and continued the dictation. When the steno brought the draft, he changed 80 per cent of his own draft. And later revised four more such revised drafts. After finalizing the eventual draft, he signed the file and sent that to his Deputy Secretary. I stayed in his room for about 30 minutes discussing inter-alia the reason for revising draft so many times. He told me that he makes sure that the draft should be a perfection so that his superiors should not be bothered to make any changes. This was true as the same file came to his seat travelling the onward and backward journey from Deputy Secretary to Joint Secretary to Additional Secretary and Secretary. In those days movement of files was very quick. Now a file takes minimum 2-3 days to travel from Section Officer to Secretary and back. His draft was approved without a touch of pen by any of his superiors. His superiors had lot of regards for him because of his hard work, commitment and dedication to work. He started his service in Finance and retired from there because no Deputy Secretary could afford to loose him, that is why his transfer orders were always cancelled by his superiors. Perhaps he created history of longest service in Finance Ministry.
    God bless him,and grant a place in heaven.
    Aameen.

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    1. these lesson are so valuble for us. bare aba (irtiqa zaidi) often mention nana jee (ahsan hyder) but i haven't heard about this incident. i will ask him next time we meet.

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    2. This incident was sent by irtiqa chacha via email that I copied n pasted here.

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  7. From the begging of our life the word guzara is used commonly. Although it is not good but how it can be eliminated from our society?

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  8. I think you are absolutely right. We are doing “guzara” in our daily life matters so commonly that perfectionism is almost obsolete in our work. Your stories remembered me my past when I went to Frare Hall with my school fellows and a teacher. I was also famous in the student because of the speeches and debates. I tried to guide my teacher to go upstairs because I have seen that place several times. And my teacher called me and gave a slap on my face and shouted “didn’t you learn any manner from your parents that you are moving ahead of me?”. All of the students were staring at me and I was literally shocked but that day I got lessons that never move ahead of your teacher.
    And as far as “guzara” is concerned, I still remember that in my 9th class my chemistry teacher Dr. Ali Ahmed failed me by just 1 mark. I got 49/50. This was the first time ever I failed in any subject. It was not the final exam but a mid-term. I went to him as beg to pass me because it was just the matter of 1 mark. But his historical words echoes today in my mind that if I give you 1 mark today you can never remember the taste of a failure you made.
    And he was right that 1 mark always hammer in my mind to learn and to study so that I can become a good student. That one mark is a “guzara” which my teacher avoid his student to learn and today in many matters of my life I tried to avoid this word “guzara”.

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    1. I think I must correct the first lesson regarding moving ahead of the teacher. I often lecture my faculty on the following:

      You know teaching is a noble profession. But, Why?

      Often teacher is even considered at a higher pedestal than even the father. I think the reason is that a teacher always feels proud of the students who went ahead of the teacher. The greatest pride of a teacher is to receive acknowledgement from an old student who had reached the greatest heights and risen much higher in knowledge and stature from the teacher. Each higher step that a pupil takes, actually raises the stature of the teacher.

      I recall Fazle Hasan Sb of IBA (mentioned in another post of mine on this blog) talking proudly about Shaukat Aziz (a student of IBA during early 1970s) of becoming the prime minister.

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