An Old Memory

It was a sunny day, I remember, as I was riding in the back of my colleague’s motorbike, in some of the fancy neighborhoods of Bangalore. I don’t even remember his full name. We called him Khan Sir. You didn’t have to have knighthood to be addressed as Sir in India. It was merely a sign of respect, a polite acknowledgement of your age, knowledge or experience.

It was about a week after our CEO told us that we were shutting down due to lack of sufficient funding. This was a perfect opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded, and Khan Sir was one. He had an idea that he wanted to work on, to try and make a product, and eventually a company, out of it. He had always wanted to give it a shot, but the resistance that comes from comfort and a fat paycheck can be hard to battle. This was the window and the push he was secretly wishing for.

He wanted a dummy to turn his idea into a working prototype. I was willing to help, a young and naively energetic and optimistic engineer, trying to grab every opportunity that presented itself. I was waiting to fly to the US for my Master’s degree in a few months, so I had nothing to lose if this little tinkering didn’t work, and something to gain if it did.

After building an MVP, we traveled on his motorbike to pitch the idea to potential investors. That’s when I first visited some of the rich homes of the Silicon Valley of India. These were the people that made it all happen. They listened to people all day long, sifted through the pile of ideas and the list of people with ideas, and funded the ones that they thought had the potential to make it big. We sure thought we were one of them.

Those brief rounds with Khan Sir taught me more about him, his motivations and aspirations than a year working with him.

In one of the stops we made, we parked the bike right next to a dog that was sleeping on the street. Our arrival was an unwelcome change in his world. How do I know? His face told us that. Turns out animals are good at communicating non-verbal clues. At least that was my interpretation of it. I would have been pissed if somebody woke me up from my mid-day nap. I guess that tells more about me than what the dog was truly saying.

But I suppose he didn’t know, or care, that it was mid-day, or even mid-week. It’s not like he had some place he’d rather be, or something he’d rather be doing. He was right where he wanted to be, precisely when he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do. He probably also didn’t have any cultural notions about what he ought to do with his life. That seems like something only animals as smart as us could come up with, and then brood over.

Thoughts about meaning and purpose, of why we are here, consumes most of us at various points in our life. Sometimes so much that it pushes us over the edge of uncertainty and leaves us rolling down helplessly and endlessly because the answers don’t come easy. It dictates, consciously or not, things we do with our time, and hence with our lives. Different cultures and societies, as do different individuals, have different ideas about them. For some, it’s about pleasing God, or working towards a divine reward. For others, it’s about living a good life, whatever that means, a life of virtues and principles, perhaps. For some, it’s the pursuit of knowledge, and for others, it’s about finding their true potential, exploring the limits of their body and mind.

Anyway, back to the dog. There was something very peaceful about the way he was sleeping amidst all the noise around him. For a moment, I felt like trading lives with him. As I was thinking it, Khan sir interrupted my chain of thought and said something along the same lines. He said he’d have preferred to be born as a dog, so that he didn’t have to worry about building a company, or about finding meaning in life. He felt like trading lives with the dog too! The zen-like state that the dog was projecting, of being able to tune out the external noises and the internal voices and being completely immersed in what he enjoyed was enviable. It’s what we all strive to achieve, I think.

I wanted the dog’s life because I was lazy. I’d rather be sleeping than working. But for him, it was deeper than that. He was, I now realize, dealing with the dichotomy of pain and pleasure that comes from being driven. Internal drive, just like external ones, can be ruthless at times.

He had a wife and a kid. His wife was pregnant at the time with the second one and had gone to her mother’s place for six months. So he had given himself six months to work on his idea. He had saved enough to make it work, without work. It’s kind of a short deadline though, and a hard one, knowing that you got half a year to turn the abstract in your mind into something concrete in the real world, and knowing that this was one of those rare moments when things fall into place to open a narrow window of opportunity.

His passion to make an impact in the world was pushing him towards something that was hard and uncomfortable yet rewarding at the same time. He felt the agony of spending all that time away from his kid and his then-pregnant wife, of life slipping away from his hands without him being present with his loved ones, but also experienced the joy that comes from attending to the calling from within. He’d have preferred an easier life if he could, but his drive left him no choice. I learned recently that that idea or state is explained through the concept of positive liberty.

At the time, I couldn’t empathize with him. I wasn’t passionate about anything, and I didn’t have responsibilities of anyone but my own. Time, as far as I was concerned, was a perennial resource. I had the majority of my life ahead of me.

This was in the year 2013, which seems like a long time ago now. The memory of this whole episode kept coming back to me at various times, in different situations, years later.

Three years later, in 2016, when I started to become interested in outdoor activities and got into running, hiking, and biking, I remember how I couldn’t get myself to do anything during the weekends but that. The rush and excitement was irresistible. Friday evening, I hit the road, only to be back home on Sunday. Every weekend a new destination, with new people. Even my day job took a backseat for a while. I focused less on my career and more on such experiences. With this new found freedom, I thought, and read, a lot about balance and free will but at the same time felt completely helpless in the grips of the inner force that was controlling me. It occurred to me how he, or most entrepreneurs, must feel like when they invest all their precious resources – time, money, and energy – into building something, knowing well that the chances of it going anywhere good are rather slim. It’s hard to tell if it’s what you are choosing to do, or if it’s the inner voice making you do.

Today, in 2021, while sitting on a couch dragging my fingers against the iPad screen, looking for e-books in my library app, I stumbled upon a book called “How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog - Exploring the Big Questions in Life”, by Anthony McGowan.

The title piqued my interest for two reasons: first, because of my interest in books that break down complex subjects into simple language, and second, because I was curious about how ideas from a subject, as complex and as abstract as Philosophy, could possibly be transported out of the realm of human understanding and extended to a dog’s world. The title also brought back that old memory and for a moment, my mind drifted away…wondering about that dog…

Was he still alive? What would he be doing with his life now, if he were?

Over all these years, would he have grown in some way?

Did old age teach him lessons he would tell his younger self? All those days spent sleeping, could they have been spent any better, in a more productive way?

and wondering about freedom…

Was the dog freer than us, in a way, without being constantly crippled by the worries in life?

Is free will and freedom reflected in what we do, or what we choose to do?

If it is the latter, are we choosing to do the things we do in our life, or are we merely telling ourselves that to be able to sleep at night? If we’re acting purely and solely based on our impulses, are we even exercising our freedom?

How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog: Exploring the Big Questions in Life

Positive and Negative Liberty: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy