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Theek Hai: Lessons from India

Written by William Lifferth
“Theek hai.”

It was the first Hindi phrase I picked up. It’s a kind of filler people use when they hit a lull in the conversation, but more than that it embodies this profound Indian sensibility of charging ahead in light of clearly prohibitive realities. While it roughly translates to “everything’s good,” it was used in essentially every scenario in which—quite clearly, it seemed to me—everything was not good.

It happened frequently enough that I started hearing it in my head every time something absurd happened.

I’ve been detained for 12 hours with no explanation.

“Theek hai.”

There’s no bed in the hotel room.

“Theek hai.”

I’ve contracted malaria.

“Theek hai.”

From frequent power outages to mixed sewage and drinking water, the infrastructure never ceased to provide opportunities for one to exclaim “theek nahi hai” (everything is not good), but from my coworkers to my host family to random strangers turned friends, everyone took these challenges in stride.

Theek Hai cows I believe it’s a great lesson to roll with the punches, grit your teeth, and say “theek hai.” What I observed opened my eyes to the deep paradigm differences between the US and India.

In the US, individualism is emphasized. We have a standard of cooperation between large groups of people and a culture of customer service. For me, this has fostered a sense that there is always a plan and that following that plan will always lead to the best outcome. If something goes wrong, we should try to fix it. If something doesn’t make sense, I should try to figure it out before moving forward. “There should always be a plan” is the dominant mentality.

From what I saw, there is no such plan in India. A population explosion and rapid industrialization have catapulted India into previously uncharted territory. The speed of ubiquitous development and change made it an amazing place to work, but it also meant you had to be ready to smile and say “theek hai” at the drop of a hat. The willingness to operate in the midst of uncertainty was admirable and a method that I had to work hard to accept. It forced me to reconceptualize the idea of efficiency outside the American context.

My work while at TNC Aviation was centered around building tools that could be used to effectively recruit 10+2 graduates (the Indian equivalent of high school) to pilot and cabin crew training programs in the United States and Canada. This frequently crossed over into marketing, and it forced me to consider the entirety of the supply chain of human labor in India.

Lifferth It allowed me to, in some small way, understand India’s place in a global economy. Things there moved fast, and the people there were mentally equipped to move fast as well.

The perfect example of how this willingness to adapt can be beneficial came when my brother and I found ourselves caught in a monsoon while searching for a connection to our great-great-grandmother’s history. w lifferthOn our search for the place of her christening, we planned to visit all the old Catholic churches in the area. Upon emerging from our first stop to find ourselves in a torrential downpour, 20 minutes from our hotel, we had to make some quick adjustments. Here the ability to roll with the punches was essential. As we started on the trek back to our hotel, an older woman named Mrs. Malik rolled down her window to offer us a ride. Once we explained our predicament, she informed us she was one of the oldest practicing Catholics in Mumbai and would be happy to take us to the only church remaining from the time our great-great-grandmother was christened. There, we were assured by a priest that all christenings of the time period would have been performed in that very cathedral. In that moment I was incredibly grateful for the kindness and flexibility of the “theek hai” mindset (and Mrs. Malik), which allowed us to touch a part of our own history.

Since being back in the States I’ve started consciously toggling in and out of “theek hai” mode; often when I’m first coming to understand a problem it’s helpful to move fast and fail often. Upon figuring out what the problem to be solved is, it’s really helpful to transition out of “theek hai” mode to plan and execute more rigorously. I don’t believe there’s any superiority in either of those ways of thinking and acting. On the contrary, I found it valuable and enriching to experience the difference between the two paradigms, because they arise to solve different problems.

As someone who lives most of his life according to plan, it can be both liberating and effective to take a step back, smile, and say “theek hai.”