“Cream” by Haruki Murakami

I am doing a creative writing course and thinking now of an idea for a short story. Looking for inspiration, tips and writing style ideas I decided to re-read the short story “Cream” from the latest collection of stories by Haruki Murakami “First person singular”. It is my favourite story from this short story collection. My intention of reading the story for a second time was to read as a writer (not as a reader) and notice minor details and Murakami’s secrets of magic prose.

I guess, the reason that I like Murakami’s writing in the first place is that he assumes a smart reader, a reader who is knowledgeable and willing to go an extra step. The meanings of the story emerge on multiple layers, and we (readers) need to peel these layers in order to get to the juicy revelations.

I love the beautiful symbolism of the story. References to travel, trains, buses are not novel for Murakami and here again Murakami uses the metaphor of a road to represent the journey of life. Symbolic references to trains, roads and cars have been used by writers previously, for instance by Leo Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina” and by Vladimir Nabokov (in several of his works). The Japanese town Kobe symbolises the identity of the hero of the story. The hero travels to the top of the mountain in search of a concert hall. He asks:

“Why in the world am I here?” I asked myself, as I sat hunched over in my seat, cooling my flushed cheeks with my palms

Of course, we understand that the question symbolises a search for meaning of life. Here again, we can see a reference to the “Castle” by Kafka, where the mountain symbolises spiritual growth. Murakami is skilful in demonstrating how geography and landscape represent the inner feelings of the hero. The idea of loneliness is not novel for Murakami and once again it is presented beautifully.

Further development of the story confirms the idea of spiritual search. The hero sits on a bench in the park and listens to the Christian message from the loudspeaker of an invisible car:

“But all those who seek salvation in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins will have their sins forgiven by the Lord. They will escape the fires of Hell. Believe in God, for only those who believe in Him will reach salvation after death and receive eternal life.”

The loudspeaker seems to be answering the question posed by the hero of the story. The question was answered in an unexpected and somewhat magical way. In one of his interviews, Murakami outlined the importance of asking the right questions in life. This story shows that once you ask the right question, you will get an answer back in some unexpected way. The next hint is the conversation with the old man:

“Listen, you’ve got to imagine it with your own power. Use all the wisdom you have and picture it. A circle that has many centers but no circumference. If you put in such an intense effort that it’s as if you were sweating blood—that’s when it gradually becomes clear what the circle is”

This discussion relates to the search for meaning beyond our normal logic and reason. To find meaning, we have to open up, expand our thinking beyond conventional ideas. Spirituality is something that you can’t explain like circles that have many centres with no circumference. It is a constant process of searching for truth and answers within yourself. I appreciate the boldness of Murakami discussing the unexplainable or ephemeral. Usually, writers do not dare to talk about something that they cannot clearly explain and argue for.

The beauty of the story is that there could be multiple interpretations. How did you understand this story?

Habit 6: synergize TM

Today I will discuss habit 6 – synergize TM from the book “7 habits of highly effective people”. This principle is about synergy as the cooperation that produces the combined effects greater than the sum of the individual contributions. According to Covey, synergy is the essence of the universe: the nature is truly synergetic. In human life, synergy is the essence of principle-centred leadership and parenting.

When you communicate synergistically, you are simply opening your mind and heart and expressions to new possibilities, new alternatives, new options. Many people haven’t experienced synergistic communications as they have been trained and scripted into defensive and protective communications or into believing that life or other people can’t be trusted.

To engage in creative and complex tasks, we need to embrace uncertainty. To experience ambiguity with confidence, we need to have inner values that guide us. In many bureaucratic organizations the opposite is happening: administrators set up more and more stringent rules limiting freedom and creative possibilities for employees. These rules along with legalistic and mechanical language of managers kill the whole spirit of creativity and enterprise.

Synergy should be based on trust and not fixed rules.

Here are a few inspirational quotes:

“The essence of synergy is to value the differences”

“When a person has access to both the intuitive, creative, and visual right brain, and the analytical, logical, verbal left brain, then the whole brain is working”

“Your own internal synergy is completely within your circle. You can respect both sides of your own nature – the analytical side and the creative side. You can value the difference between them and use that difference to catalyze creativity”

“Insecure people think that all reality should be amenable to their paradigms”

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

The next habit from the book “7 habits of highly effective people” is seeking first to understand. This sounds so simple and even banal, but it is actually a difficult habit to develop. We as humans are filled with our own perceptions of life, opinions, scripts, values and we want to be understood. Thus, our natural instinct is to seek acceptance and understanding and along the way we may forget about the lives of others. Let’s try to think from the perspective of other people. They also have a deep need to be understood, affirmed, validated and appreciated. Yet, in many cases we disregard other people viewpoints and positions.

The one most common mistake in communication is probing. When we probe, we ask questions from our frame of reference. When we probe, we impose our perspective on other people. Another mistake is to evaluate other person’s perspective – to agree or disagree with it. Sometimes we advise, we give counsel based on our own perspective and worldview. Other times we interpret – we try to explain people’s behaviour based on our own frame of reference. These predetermined responses prevent us from understanding other people and their personal worlds.

Instead of these unproductive habits, we need to develop empathic listening habit. Empathic listening has a deep intent to understand, listen from your heart. Covey suggests several stages of empathic listening. First, repeat back the content (do not advise or probe). Second, rephrase the content. Third, reflect feeling (try to understand emotions). Fourth, rephrase the content and reflect the feeling. All these stages require consideration and courage. Remember, people resent any attempt to be manipulated. You need to be sincere and honest. With time, the more you listen empathically, the more you appreciate other people and love them.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win – principles of interpersonal leadership

Let’s continue our discussion of the “7 habits of highly effective people” written by Stephen Covey.

Win-win is another habit suggested by Stephen Covey in his famous book “7 habits of highly effective people”. Covey describes this paradigm as constantly seeking mutual benefit in interactions. Covey argues that most people think in terms of win-lose paradigm: “I win, you lose”. When you are dealing with people with win-lose paradigm, you need to listen more, try to understand and focus on the Circle of Influence. You make deposits into Emotional Bank Account through genuine courtesy, respect and appreciation. In most cases, this should help in establishing a mutually beneficial long-lasting relationship. Yet, occasionally this can mean that you never reach an agreement with another person and this is totally fine.

Win-win is the paradigm of successful people, people who are trusted, people who have good friends and good relationships with colleagues. This paradigm requires a strong character that is shaped by values and not external stimuli. Win-win paradigm allows for synergies when value is created for everyone and everyone benefits from cooperation. Character traits of win-win paradigm are integrity, maturity and abundance mentality. Integrity is about living according to our values and making and keeping commitments. Maturity is the balance between courage and consideration, increasing the long-term welfare of all stakeholders. A mature person expresses her own feelings while considering feelings of others. Abundance mentality is the idea that there is plenty of staff for everybody out there. We need to be genuinely happy for successes of other people. We also need to be generous in sharing recognition, profit and successes with our colleagues.

“Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan is a Nobel Prize winner in literature in 2006. Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow” is both challenging to read, melancholic and deep. I like reading difficult literature as it allows for some space to fill the gaps and requires you to think about the implicit meanings. The first challenge for me was to understand the historical context of Turkey. The novel relates to several historical events and key figures in Turkish history such as Ataturk. I must admit, I was not very familiar with the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, so I had to do my internet search to fully understand the context. The city where the main action takes place is called Kars located in northeast Turkey. This city has experienced major transformations during World War I previously part of Armenia, Kars was transferred to Turkey. I think this town was deliberately chosen to be the center place of the novel. It is a town where history is still visible in old Armenian and Soviet buildings.

The main hero of the novel is Ka – a Turkish expat living in Germany. He is a poet and came to Kars to write about an increasing number of girls’ suicides happening in Kars. He spends three days in Kars, yet the time seems to be very slow in the novel and it feels like he’s been there much longer. Ka’s challenge is to find his identity: he feels that he is not German yet, but he is also considered a foreigner in Turkey. Ka grew up in an intelligentsia family in Istanbul and seems to embrace pro-western views and lifestyles. As he spends his time in Kars, Ka seems to rethink his identity.


The narrative of the story is reminiscent of “The Castle” by Kafka with references to spiritual search and spiritual awakening. When Ka walks in Kars and meditatively observes the fall of snowflakes, these moments in the book are so beautiful and deep and remind me of importance of finding meaning in simple things around us instead of searching for external pleasures. The dialogues in the story revolve around issues of faith versus secularism and east versus west. What is unique about this novel, though, is that arguments of both sides are well presented. We learn more about misperceptions of each side and the absurdity of dividing people into eastern and western. The idea of pride of headscarf girls is so deep and fundamental. I am not sure if we in the West really understand the Turkish notion of pride. Pamuk talks about topics that are taboo in modern culture and I love this.

It is also interesting how Pamuk describes the creative process of poem writing. It is sporadic, illogical and almost transcendental.

Habit 3 – First things first – principles of personal management

Image By Davidjcmorris – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74528894

It’s been a while since I last wrote on “7 habits of highly effective people”. Today I will discuss habit 3 -first things first. Habit 3 is about prioritization, about prioritizing to you what is most important. As such, to be able to prioritize, you need to have developed your personal mission statement. We all know that we tend to spend time on things that are not important to us, so to say procrastinate. But why? Why do we not spend time on development of skills, professional growth and relationship building?

Covey says that we need to have discipline to focus on what is important. Discipline has to come from within, you cannot truly enforce it. Covey is sceptical about time management tools such as checklists and calendars. Because if you do not have internal willpower, you will not be able to follow your checklists. Once you fully understand and embrace your sense of purpose, you tend to have more passion and will power to complete important tasks.

Covey suggests us to look at the time management from the perspective of urgency/importance (see picture above). Quadrant 1 is urgent and important tasks. Covey argues that this quadrant grows exponentially, and we need to reduce the number of tasks in this quadrant. Quadrant 2 is not urgent but important tasks: we need to plan for these tasks and purposefully include them in our calendars every day. Quadrant 3 is urgent but not important: these tasks ideally should be delegated. Or we need to be really efficient with completing these tasks. Quadrant 4 is not urgent and not important, and these activities have to be eliminated completely.

Covey argues that the best way to prioritize our tasks is to think about our roles. What are your roles and what goals are associated with them? For instance, for me I identify my roles as:

  1. Personal development
  2. Partner
  3. Educator
  4. Friend
  5. Yogi
  6. Author

For me, the biggest challenge is that I tend to put forward my work-related roles as an educator and tend to forget about my other roles that are actually very important for my well being and a sense of purpose. Do you have the same problem? These days I am learning how to say no to the opportunities with less priority to me.

A few inspirational quotes from Covey:

“Effective management is about putting first things first. While leadership “decides” what “first things” are, it is management that puts them first. Management is discipline, carrying it out”

“The challenge is not to manage time but to manage ourselves”

“The way you spend your time is a result of the way you see your time and the way you really see your priorities”

“What one thing you could do on a regular basis that will make a tremendous positive influence on your life?”

Stay tuned,

Alyona

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Finally, I am back from my vacation and continue blogging. I am continuing my discussion of the “7 habits of highly effective people”, the book that everyone should read at some point in their life. Today I will focus on habit 2: “Begin with the end in mind”. It took me awhile to think about this habit as it is the most challenging one for me at the moment.  Let’s have a look at the tips provided by Stephen Covey.

This habit is about having a clear goal of your life, understanding your own values and principles. Contemporary societies impose a variety of scripts on us: how to behave, what is success and what is important. We are bombarded with glossy advertisements telling us that pleasure is our ultimate goal. Yet, many people often find themselves achieving victories that are empty, meaningless and not valuable. Thus, creating your own script of life is important.

Covey suggests us to write a personal mission statement of our own life, formulating our most important objectives. These objectives may not always be in line with societal expectations and success targets. This mission statement will provide us with:

  • Security – our own sense of worth, identity and emotional anchorage
  • Guidance – source of direction in life, guiding internal frame of reference
  • Wisdom – perspective of life, sense of balance, judgment, holistic view of life
  • Power – capacity to act, the strength to accomplish something, cultivating higher habits

Instead of our own centre, too often we are mistakenly focusing on alternative centres, for instance experiencing money centredness or work centredness. These alternative centres shape the way we perceive reality around us, make important decisions and spend our energy. Why do we keep focusing on these alternative centres?

I believe that it takes courage to determine your own centre, your paradigm of life and be different from others in society. It is much easier to conform, to be like everyone else. For me, separating my own scripts from societal scripts is the most difficult. Let’s become leaders of our personal lives.

How do you find your true goal?

Habit 1: Be proactive

Covey starts his discussion of habits with proactivity. I found that the discussion of proactivity as a habit is deep, very well argued and written. Covey introduces proactivity with the experience of Viktor Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps.  Frankl could survive the terrible experience of a concentration camp because he was proactive and had freedom to choose his response to the situation. Far too often we think in terms of our social mirrors, we focus too much on the outside instead of the inside. Thus, proactivity is our ability to be responsible for our lives. Covey argues that we have the power to choose our response to any situation in our lives.

Proactivity is about understanding how we spend our energy. We cannot directly influence outcomes within the circle of concern. Yet, within the circle of influence we can shape our reality and improve our wellbeing. The trick here is to be able to differentiate activities within the circle of concern and the circle of influence. Proactive people exercise initiative and focus on the circle of influence. Covey claims that proactive people are driven by values while reactive people are driven by feelings.

So, how can we change our mindset and become more proactive? Some ideas are to be a better listener, more loving marriage partner, a better student, more cooperative and dedicated employee. Another suggestion of Covey is to look at weaknesses of others with compassion and not accusation. We should also stop acting on scripts developed by our family, friends, school, employer and start to take responsibility for our own path: we are not determined by our social mirror. We should make and keep commitments and promises, in this way we can strengthen our spirits.

For me personally, proactivity is the hardest habit to develop and I need to develop a strategy of getting out of reactive thoughts, social pressures and societal stereotypes. The ideas of proactivity are very simple in theory, but are much harder to implement in practice. My conclusion is that you need to develop a very strong character to be able to practice proactivity daily. This is my aim.

Here are a few inspiring quotes from the book on proactivity (I need to come back to these ideas once in a while):

 “If you start to think that the problem is out there – stop yourself your thought is your problem”

“In choosing our response to circumstance, we powerfully affect our circumstance”

“The problem we face fall in one of three areas: direct control, indirect control or no control”

“The circle of concern is filled with have(s)”

“The circle of influence is filled with be(s)”

Do you practice proactivity? How do you do it?

Take care,

Alyona

“7 habits” Note 1: personality and character ethic

This is my first reflective note on reading the book “7 habits of highly effective people”. Stephen Covey starts his book with discussing the differences between the personality ethic and the character ethic. While personality ethic is a paradigm that centres around building an image of yourself in the community and quick fixes, character ethic is about fundamental human qualities such as integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, etc.

Both types of ethics are our paradigms, the ways we see the world, our angle on the world. Covey argues that paradigms are about perceiving, understanding and interpreting the world around us. So, personality paradigm is about prioritizing external reality while character ethic is about prioritizing our internal qualities and consciousness. Paradigms are about our values and attitudes. The start of the book made me reflect on my own paradigms and my own behaviour. Why do I always feel the victim of circumstances? Why do I notice a lot of negativity around me?

I definitely need to work on my paradigm and on the way I see the world around me. Covey suggests focusing on inside out thinking: to change yourself first before focusing and judging the world around yourself. This means that instead of focusing on weaknesses of other people, I have to fix and address my own emotional problems and insecurities.

Another powerful tip from Covey is to maintain P (production) and PC (production capability) balance. Covey explains this as the balance between the golden egg (production) and the health and welfare of the goose (production capability). This means that we need to invest in ourselves, in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, in our professional development, in our growth. The idea is simple, but we tend to forget about it as we are lost in daily routines, pressing deadlines and work pressures. This requires us to save time to reflect and think about planning our future, thinking strategically and then leaving some time each day in our calendar for production capability activities: going to the gym, doing breathing exercises, doing professional development courses, learning a foreign language, etc.

Take care!

Next time we’ll discuss habit 1: be proactive.

Book review: “7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey

I believe in signs and when I’ve heard from a couple of people about the fascinating book “7 habits of highly effective people”, I thought I would give this book a second chance. I initially read this book around 12 years ago and do not remember much about its contents. I am also not a big fan of non-fiction self help books that claim to teach you how to write a book in 12 weeks or become a leader in 3 months. I just don’t believe in these superficially imposed claims and slack language. Anyways, “7 habits of highly effective people” is a different type of self-help book that is actually useful and deeply provocative. It is also written as a manual with some exercises to complete after each chapter. This time, I am planning to do the exercises and spend my time on reflection of my daily routines and activities.

A businessman, educator, researcher and writer, Stephen Covey shared with us a deep personal reflection on human effectiveness. Instead of focusing on the quick fix approaches, he uncovers the seven habits that transform our lives and change our perception of the world. I think the power of the book is in our personal reflection on each habit and our unique perspective on these habits. I also believe that the strength of the book is in addressing all aspects of our lives all together rather than superficially separating work, family life, friendship, community service and religious service. Covey argues that all aspects of our lives are interconnected as we pursue our unique mission and goals in life. Similar to a psychologist, Covey asks us to reflect on our past, present and future. What are our values and beliefs? Where are we heading?

So, the seven habits are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win-win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

Revealing, honest and intimate examples from Stephen Covey personal life are very helpful in clarifying the habits and solutions. Stephen is honest that it took him a long time to become aware and embrace his personal problems with his family. The solutions took some effort and determination. The results were heart warming and promising. I believe that everyone should read and re-read this book as a personal development exercise. I recommend this book to my university students. Over the upcoming weeks, I will share some reflections on the exercises relating to each habit.

Stay tuned!