You, Me and Mr. Phileas Fogg

During my school days, when I read the book by the French writer Jules Verne “Eighty Days Around the World”, I was most impressed by the character Phileas Fogg. Phileas Fogg was a rich British gentleman living in London and in solitude. Despite his wealth, Fogg lived a modest life with habits carried out with mathematical precision. For instance, Fogg dismissed his former valet, James Forster, for bringing him shaving water at 84 °F (29 °C) instead of 86 °F (30 °C). He hired Frenchman Jean Passepartout as a replacement.

I was fascinated by Fogg’s “perfect” and “precise” life. His adventure of going around the world in 80 days was another inspiration. I started to behave like Phileas Fogg and carried a thermometer when I went to the bathroom and check the temperature of the hot water in the bucket while mixing hot and cold water. I ensured that I bathed with water of 31 0C temperature. I started counting the number of steps I would take to reach my school and remained close to the average number of 887 steps. I wouldn’t cross the road and say hello to friends as this would mean a deviation to what was supposed to be. When in college, I ate food that had a fixed composition of raw and cooked portions, 70:30, to be precise and I ensured that total calorie intake was 1600 on weekdays and 1800 on weekends. My mother and house cook had a tough time due to my insistence on the precise way of eating.

As I grew older I realized that living a precision life like Phileas Fogg was impossible. The real world threw so many challenges and this led to detours and deviations. My life became patchy somewhat with no clear and steady goals and targets set for accomplishment. Life simply rolled on like a wind wheel.

I studied environmental science and engineering (because I was deeply  interested in the subject and had no career rationale), started my career in marketing pollution control equipment (left as I got a bit nauseated) and then moved to engineering consulting that I liked. I decided to take a break for doctoral research however as I discovered some research problems and needed a “pause”. The next step was to join a position for teaching, research and consulting at an academic institution that I did. In few years however, I realized that I wanted to move faster and closer to the real world and the institute I was working had a lot of inertia and a pride in isolating from reality.

I enjoyed international work as I loved to travel. Becoming an entrepreneur was always my dream and so I started my own business while working with the world of Corporates and financing institutions. I did not prepare a business plan for my company.  I set up a not-profit organization focusing on awareness, training and eco-entrepreneurship that had less clarity on the objectives. Nothing was planned like how Phileas Fogg did when he prepared his itinerary to travel across the world.

(My wife says that if I had the clarity and doggedness in planning my life, then I could have become a Vice President of Asian Development Bank enjoying the power, money and retirement benefits! Alas – I missed the boat!)

Few years ago, I met with a smart Sri Lankan bureaucrat in Tokyo who worked for Asian Productivity Organization. She shared with me her plan of life that had clear definition of goals, objectives and targets prepared starting from her graduation till date. “Dr Modak, I planned my life ahead of time” she said while sharing with me a well-articulated document. I saw that this lady had a perfect plan in place to guide and track her life and assess accomplishments. “And where do you stand Ms. today?” I asked. She told me that she was doing extremely well and was two years ahead of her targets.

“ But the plan cannot be static Dr Modak” She explained. “Plans must be dynamic, and you need to check whether goals and objectives are still relevant and whether targets set were realistic. So, I keep adapting my plan every two years based on the new situations”. I thought this made a perfect sense.

I realized that this is exactly happened to Phileas Fogg when he undertook his journey around the earth in 80 days. Initially, he had made a meticulous plan of travel that included destinations, stopovers and modes of travel but then he had to deviate and innovate when he met with several surprises on his way. For instance, he encountered characters like Detective Fix, a young Indian woman Aouda and an Elephant in India who were not part of his original plan.

Mr Fogg’s Route across the World

I was unhappy however that I did not follow the precision and perfection of Philias Fogg nor the adaptive targets approach of the Sri Lankan lady.  I talked about my frustration to my Professor friend.

Professor had another view. He said that planning is certainly needed but the extent to which you stress about the targets must be controlled – else there could be frustration.

(I remembered that while the SriLankan lady looked happy about her accomplishments, she was stressed due to “continuous self-assessment” against the targets she had set.)

Professor elaborated and following “bullet points” emerged from his discourse

  • Make a plan but its ok to deviate from your plans from time to time
  • Change the targets if they are no longer serving you
  • It’s not so much about planning every detail of your life but learning to enjoy the process
  • Each new experience (whether it was part of the plan or not) helps you grow as a person and teach you what it is that you want out of life

“So, Dr Modak, there is absolutely nothing wrong with planning your life! What can go wrong is your strong attachment to a plan” Professor lit his cigar and continued to explain citing his example.

“I am kind of addicted to plan my day before I start my work. I do this in the form of a checklist of “to do things” with a colleague and plan what is to be done in the right sequence or priority on that day. Many actions need to be delegated and that needs to be done upfront with some guidance given to the colleagues. Then at the end of the day, I sit with my colleague once again to take a stock and understand the status of “to do’s; find reasons why? especially for important things if they could not be done. A strategy to remedy the situation is then prepared and all this rolls into the next day’s checklist of “to do”.”

“So its “micro-planning” that I would recommend you to follow. Certainly, you need to prepare a broad long term plan – but let it not intimidate you or suppress the opportunities of oddities”.

I liked the idea.

Professor extinguished his cigar and said

“A person who plans meticulously does not deviate. But this person will never be creative”

He left the room with these deep words.

You all may know that due to all the mess and surprises, Fogg finally reaches one day late to London. The following day Fogg apologizes to Aouda for bringing her with him, since he now has to live in poverty and cannot support her. Aouda confesses that she loves him and asks him to marry her.

As Passepartout notifies a minister, he learns that he is mistaken in the date – it is not 22 December, but instead 21 December. Because the party had travelled eastward, they had gained one day upon crossing the International Date Line. Passepartout informs Fogg of his mistake, and Fogg hurries to the Reform Club just in time to meet his deadline and win the wager of £20,000.

I realized that Mr. Perfect Phileas Fogg couldn’t execute his meticulous plan to the perfection he would have loved to; but his handling of the situations “creatively” led to winning the wager and even better a deal as he got Ms. Aouda as partner to his life.

Remember what Author Michael Gellert said: “Striving for perfection is often confused with the quest for fulfillment: we think that if we can become perfect or create perfect things or situations, we will be happy.”

So happiness need not be linked to perfection.

Mr.  Phileas Fogg was a man of precision and perfection but finally the imperfections in the journey around the world made him a happy and a successful man.

I thought of letting my wife know.

 


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2 thoughts on “You, Me and Mr. Phileas Fogg

  1. Prasad,

    Your blog made me do some introspection about the way things have been happening in my life.

    You have put across true and profound facts of life in a lucid and humorous way.

    Thanks for brightening up our lives with your cheerful blogs.

    Like

  2. Dear Dr Modak,
    Loved your interpretation of Phileas Fogg’s journey and your conclusions about taking things in stride, creatively.
    As always, enjoy your blogs (and I always wonder how you manage to do everything on your plate! )
    Thanks,
    Amruta Ponkshe

    Like

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