I started my corporate career in Guyana with the Guyana
Mining Enterprise in Kwakwani, on the Rio Berbice. Kwakwani was a small mining
town, hanging on the bank of the Berbice River trying not to get pushed into its
deep and dark waters by an aggressively advancing forest. Living in the middle
of the Amazonian rain forest with no family and only a Scarlet Macaw and sundry
chickens, turkeys and a series of wild animals as pets may not be the normal
youngster’s dream job, but it was mine. I lived on Staff Hill, in a small
bungalow with three bedrooms, a living/dining room and kitchen and a veranda on
two sides. Facing the bungalow was an orange orchard that ended in the brooding
mass of the wall of the rain forest. Behind and surrounding the bungalow was a large
open field ending in the wall of the rain forest once again. Living in the
middle of the rain forest meant just that; you had the forest surrounding you.
I would sit on my veranda in the evenings after the sun had gone down and I had had my dinner. In the days and places without TV or mobile phones, you had time to relax, watch the world go by and simply be in sync with your surroundings. The forest is not a silent place. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first our ears must stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. The forest speaks to you in the voices of the Howler Monkeys announcing that the dawn has broken and, in the evening, that the night has fallen, and they are signing off for the day. Toucans, Parakeets and Macaws talking to each other as they fly, feed and roost. It speaks to you in the rustle of the oncoming deluge which you can hear advancing towards you, not threatening but announcing its progress so that you can take shelter. The wind rustling the treetops sometimes sounds like the waves of the ocean. You will hear all this, and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.
My first boss, Mr. James Nicholas Adams (Nick
Adams) was the Administrative Manager of Kwakwani and I was his Assistant
Manager. Nick was my manager but even more he was my mentor and guide. Although
he was technically in charge of the whole operation, he let me run it the way I
wanted and that was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. Nick had a unique
way of teaching by delegating responsibility and then periodically calling me
to do a participative analysis of my own performance. He would then reinforce
the strengths and achievements and encourage me to draw lessons from my
mistakes. I remember my first ever appraisal in 1980. Nick gave me the form and
told me to fill it in myself. I was shocked because I thought appraising was
something that the boss did of your work. But Nick said, ‘You know what you did
better than I do. So, write it up.’ I returned with what I thought were my
achievements and then Nick and I had a long chat about them. Thanks to my Indian
cultural upbringing, Nick ended up adding several things that I had left out
feeling that they didn’t really count. I still have that form with Nick’s
signature on it, decades later.
In Kwakwani, I was the youngest member of the Management Team, sometimes by decades. As the Assistant Administrative Manager, it was part of my responsibility to look after the logistics in the entire mining town. There were department heads over whom I had no formal authority, but whose cooperation I needed to get anything done. Some were twice my age and Guyanese and members of the PNC (People’s National Congress – the ruling party in Guyana), while I was a young foreigner. I learnt, very practically, that the best way to make progress was to develop a relationship based on sincerity as that would be the only thing that you could count on, especially in hard times. I remember how Nick Adams used to put it. He’d say, “A relationship is like a bank account. You only have in it, what you put in. And when you need to draw on it, you only have as much as you put in.” That is one of the lessons I learnt in my life and which has stayed with me all these years. That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” Nick and his lovely wife Kathleen knew that I was Muslim and would eat only meat that was slaughtered according to the rules of Halal. So, they made sure that not only was what they gave me Halal but that I would have total confidence in that. What better way than to let me do it myself?
One of Nick’s biggest strengths was his communication; both its clarity and wisdom. I recall an amusing but very instructive incident which illustrates the challenges we faced and how Nick dealt with them. Guyana had recently become independent and was ruled by the PNC (People’s National Congress) which was socialist/communist. The President of Guyana was the very powerful and iconic, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923 – 1985). Communism/socialism was the prevalent ideology. We addressed each other as ‘Comrade’. I was Comrade (written Cde.) Baig. Bauxite mining was the major economic activity in Guyana and just before I landed there in 1979, the government had nationalized the bauxite mining and calcining operation. One inevitable and tragic result was that people were appointed and promoted more for ideological loyalty than for professional competence. Another result was that the Guyana Mine Workers Union became very strong. Guymine (used to be called Guybau) had 5000 workers and all were members of the GMWU. The Union was run by its General Secretary, Stephen Louis, a huge big man with a voice to match.
One effect of the nationalization and heightened union activity was frequent work stoppages on all kinds of frivolous matters. Then we would meet to discuss Terms of Resumption and arrive at a settlement. The meetings were contests of will, to see who would break down first. The meetings were very important because if we couldn’t arrive at a settlement the issue would go to Arbitration before the Minister of Mines whose other role was as the President of the Union. The typical Terms of Resumption meeting would go straight through for anything ranging from 24 – 72 hours, with short breaks of usually an hour or two to stretch our legs and eat something. Naturally patience was tough to maintain, and tempers would get frayed. This incident relates to one such meeting.
I can’t recall what the issue was, for which the Union had called for a Tools Down. We started the meeting at 8.00 pm and it continued through the night into the next morning. We took a break of about 2 hours to take a shower and have breakfast. Then back in the meeting until 8.00 pm that night. Then a break for dinner and back again through the night. Stephen Louis was holding forth at full strength, his voice resonating and bouncing off the ceiling and walls; my first experience of surround sound. The only option we had was to listen. Our team had Nick as its head and me and another young man from IR (Industrial Relations), who we shall call Jacob (not his real name). Late that night, well past midnight, Jacob’s patience snapped. Stephen Louis had been going on and on about the ideological differences between socialist and capitalist ideologies and why the socialist ideology to which the PNC and the GMWU were committed was superior. Jacob said, ‘Man! Stephen, talk sense man.’ It was as if he had shot Stephen in the head. Stephen stopped in mid-sentence. Turned slowly to face Jacob and said, ‘Boy! (pronounced Bye) Jaykie, waya seh! Talk sense. Like me na takin sense? Ya tink a-we takin nansense? All dis time we bina trying to come to a settlemen and dis Bye seh we bina talkin nansense? Eh!’
The situation was as close to sitting on a powder keg with the fuse burning as I care to remember. In another two seconds, the Union would have walked out and hours and hours of work would have gone down the drain. We would have had to begin again with the additional problem of dealing with bruised egos as a result of good old Jaykie’s comment. That’s when I saw how quick thinking and experience makes a difference. Nick called out, ‘Hol-an, Hol-an man Stephen. De Bye na seh, Leh we talk sense. He seh, Leh we talk dallar and cents. Leh we talk moe-ney! Leh we do dat man. Nof-of dis ideology thing. Leh we decide and go to bed.’
swear, I saw relief on Stephen Loius’s face. He say, ‘Ah! Ya, leh we do da.’ And
we did. We finished as the day was breaking and as we left the room, Stephen
came up behind Jacob, affectionately grabbed him by the back of his neck and said,
‘De man Nick don save yar aas. You know waya seh, eh! And I know wa I hear! But
Nick don save a-we. If not, dis meeting was gonna go on for noder two days.
Watch ya tongue Bye. It can geh you into trouble. And you won’ have Nick to
bail you out next time.’ That is where I learnt human relations. In a very tough
environment but where even our antagonists took time out to unofficially mentor
My last story about Nick. I heard this story from his son Owen Shaka Abubakr Adams. When Nick was a young man, and lived in Linden, Demarara, he received a summons from a court in Corentynwhich is at the northern border of Guyana, with Suriname; a distance of about 400 kilometers. To go there in those days (1950’s?) must have been an expedition. Nick had no idea why he had been summoned. But he went. When he arrived at the court, his name was called, and the judge asked him to come forward. As Nick was walking down the aisle, he heard a woman’s voice, ‘He is not the man.’ Nick turned to see a young woman with a baby.
The judge told the lady, ‘Look carefully at him. This is Nick Adams. Is he the man?’ The lady said, ‘He is not the man. This is someone else.’
When Nick asked, the judge said to him, ‘A man by
your name, got this lady pregnant and now that she has a baby, he has
disappeared. Anyway, this is not your problem, so you can go home.’
Nick said to the judge, ‘Your Honor, I would like to request you to please arrange for the maintenance of this child to be deducted from my salary.’
The judge was astonished. ‘Do you know this lady?’
Nick said, ‘No, Your Honor, I don’t. I am seeing her for the first time today.’ ‘Then why are you offering to pay for the maintenance of the child?’ asked the judge. ‘It is not your responsibility. This matter doesn’t concern you.’
Nick replied, ‘But the child needs to eat, Your Honor. Someone must pay for that. I am willing to do that.’
For the next 18 years, Nick Adams paid maintenance
for a child that was not his own. He saw the mother, that one time in court and
never saw the mother or child again. But month after month, year after year for
18 years, Nick Adams paid for a child because he had compassion in his heart.
Rabb was no less compassionate. So many decades later, maybe even 60 years
later, Nick Adams who was by then suffering from cancer, one week before his
death, accepted Islam along with his wife and sister in law.
The happiest ending; or I should say, the happiest latest story, to my Guyana times was when I got the news in 2011 that Nick Adams and his wife Kathleen had accepted Islam. Nick was terminally ill with cancer at the time and died a couple of weeks later. I hope one day to meet my friend once again in Jannah. He died sinless and pure and I ask Allahﷻ for His Mercy and Grace for my dear friend to whom I owe so much.
Design determines results. A train will never fly no matter how
powerful the engine may be, because it is not designed to fly. A microlight
aircraft flies with an engine smaller than that of most motorcycles.
The problem with our schooling today is not that it has failed but that it’s successful. It does what it’s designed to do…create mediocrity and conformity so that we have more and more compliant plodders who will never rock the boat, never question and God forbid, never rebel against authority. It delivers very effectively what it was designed to deliver – obedient morons. Or to put it more charitably obedient servants for industrialists and the State. That is exactly what our education system does very well. We on the other hand want it to create children who will question, be creative, challenge the status quo, invent new ways to achieve results and generally buck the system positively. That is like expecting a train to fly by revving the engine. Our system is designed to create followers, not leaders. It is designed to create compliance not questioners. That is why we reward obedience and label questioning as disobedience and punish it. For the average teacher the ‘troublesome’ child is the one who asks too many questions in class. But it is only questioning which opens doors to new vistas and finds solutions to problems which we don’t even recognize yet.
We all agree that the pace of change is such that quite literally
we don’t have a clue about what the world will look like five years down the
road. The only thing we can be sure of, is that it will look very different. We
also agree that the two critical ingredients to success in that world are imagination
and divergent thinking of which creativity is the result. Yet we have an
education system that destroys these things very effectively, ruthlessly and
quickly. If you doubt me ask yourself how many times you have heard the
statement, ‘Forget that. You can’t get a job doing that.’ And you are right. He
can’t get a job doing that. But perhaps he can create jobs for thousands if you
leave him alone with his dreams and not destroy his creativity and divergence. Or
maybe he will not even create jobs but will be a happy human being living his
life to fulfilment. Now what’s so bad about that? But that terrifies the
daylights out of you and so you force him to comply until he succumbs – another
one bites the dust.
If you want your child to be a leader with a
chance to do something valuable, to leave a legacy of honor, to change society,
to alleviate suffering, help the oppressed, stand up against injustice and be a
credit to you, then formal schooling is the first thing you should save him/her
Our education system doesn’t need change. It needs a decent
burial. Then we need to put in place a system which is focused on developing
the natural talents of the child, enabling him/her to leverage them to their
greatest benefit and then help them to apply the learning. No
matter how much you tweak a railway engine it will never fly. If you want flight,
there’s nothing in the design of a railway engine that you can learn from. You
need to forget railway engines and learn how to design something that’s the
opposite of a railway engine. And that’s our problem…we’re trying to create a
flying school using engine drivers. It’s not about fancy infrastructure and air-conditioned
classrooms but about opening minds, re-learning how to teach, writing new books
and encouraging questioning, tangential thinking and unbridled imagination.
As a friend of mine who is a teacher put it, ‘We are churning out robots who can
neither think for themselves, nor do we equip them to deal with life’s
challenges, which is why there is such a high percentage of emotional and
physical burn-out at an age when they should be at their creative peak!’
The big problem in schools is that the whole atmosphere is soul
destroying. Homes are not much different. So, most children don’t look up to
either their parents or teachers. And the fault is not theirs. Most parents and
teachers are only fit to be quietly pushed under the bed when you have polite
company. Generally, parents today seem to believe that upbringing of children
consists of satisfying their physical needs alone. So, there is no focus on
developing their minds, fulfilling their spiritual needs or teaching them
manners and social skills. We program our children to fail when they are faced
with life’s challenges and those that still succeed do so despite us, not
because of us.
When I am invited to speak to parent-teacher bodies in schools I
usually start all such talks by giving them a task and asking one question:
think of your role model (someone you know or knew personally)
how many of you is it a parent or a teacher?
I have never had more than 5% of the audience which had as their
role models, parents or teachers. That means that 95% of the population doesn’t
look up to parents or teachers – though they are the two roles which have the maximum
face time with children.
Then I ask them another question: “What do you think your children
would say if they were in this room instead of you? Would they be thinking of
you?” The biggest problem today is a total starvation of role models. And that
is the biggest challenge of education.
Today we have confused education with literacy and knowledge with
information and stuff the children’s minds with disconnected data which makes
no sense and then test them on recall at a specific time and we call that
process of regurgitation – exams. That has given birth to the industry of
Examination Factories who exist only to teach children how to ‘crack’ exams.
Learning is the last item on their agenda, if it is even there at all. All that
the child is taught is to cram select information on the basis of questions
that have been asked for that exam in the past and the Exam Factory’s analysis
of what is likely to be asked in the exam that the child will take. Once he
does that successfully his photograph is used as the bait to draw other
aspiring fish into the trap of mediocrity. The champ in our system is that poor
beast who can stuff himself with random information which he has no clue how to
use and faithfully regurgitate it on call. If the poor child recalls that same
piece of useless information (E.g. When was the Magna Carta written?) five
minutes after the bell, he would have failed the exam. To know the place of
birth of Shakespeare is essential to pass our exams – not to write creatively
in English. No wonder that many of our successful ‘scholars’ can hardly carry
on an intelligent conversation for ten minutes or write a powerful letter to
the editor in the papers. Did you ever wonder why all letters to editors are
written by old codgers with nothing to do – not by school children whose future
is being squandered by adults who couldn’t care less?
Our children spend on an average 15 years in what is called
Primary, Secondary and High School and come out of there, completely unable to
do anything useful, worthwhile or important in life. The only job they can get
with 15 years of schooling is to wait tables for which also they have to be
trained onsite. They can’t even do anything their education was supposed to
teach them. How many school graduates do you know who wrote a book for example?
After all they all learnt languages and passed papers in them for 15 years. And
yet that is not enough for them to use that language creatively to express
their thoughts. But we find nothing wrong with this. Their parents amazingly
don’t think this to be odd at all even though they spent a fortune, which many
could ill afford, on this thing they called ‘education’. I won’t even talk
about how we squander science, math and humanities. Our society is the most
powerful witness to that.
In this whole process I can’t possibly under-emphasize the importance of wise adults in the lives of children that the children can look up to. But where are we going to find them? We don’t need huge numbers of them (not that it would hurt) but we need at least one or two in the life of each child. The problems of drugs, rave parties, teenage pregnancies, alcohol (also a drug though we don’t like to call it that) and so on are really symptoms of the sickness of our society. That these are to be found in our schools is a sign of how deep that sickness has reached. We are very, very sick. We need surgery – not pills. And certainly not placebos.
As Jiddu Krishnamurthi said, ‘ It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. ‘
Problem definition is always easy. Solving it takes a lot of time,
pain and investment. And that is usually another story. But somewhere there is a
spark, alive and waiting for the chance to flame into a conflagration that has
the power to light up the world.
Are you the one to find, protect, nurture and guide it to the final stage when it shines?
Sometimes people ask me for the secret of
success. We live in a world of fantasy where people want magic formulae for
everything. Let me tell you the good news. It is not a secret, but it is a
magic formula. Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
I have given it the acronym, FIKR – K from the phonetic pronunciation of Consistency (Konsistency). As for the R – well, we’ll get to it. Just remember FIKR.
One of the most famous cases of FIKR in action is that of Dashrath Manjhi, a poor villager in Bihar, who literally carved a road out of a mountain. When his wife died tragically, because he was unable to get her to a hospital in time thanks to the fact that he had to go around a mountain to get to the main road, he decided to cut the mountain and build a road. He carved a path 110 meters long, and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the rocks in Gehlour Hill so that nobody else would need to suffer the same fate as his wife and he had to. It took him, working with a chisel and hammer, 22 years. He did this without surveying equipment or experience, drone photographs or any technology, explosives or heavy equipment. You can read more about him here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashrath_Manjhi
What was his secret? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
In 1983, I had just returned from Guyana and
joined the tea planting industry in the Anamallais. On my first annual
vacation, I attended a two-week residential, experiential learning workshop on
Applied Behavioural Science by the Indian Society of Applied Behavioural
Science (ISABS), in Jaipur. I found it very beneficial and was impressed by the
potential to help people that lay in this line of work. I was particularly
impressed by Mr. Aroon Joshi whose facilitation enabled me not only to
understand myself better but to resolve some issues which had been bothering
me. Aroon has been my dear friend and mentor ever since. The long and short of
this was that I decided that I would make training, my profession. I was a tea
planter. And I wanted to make a career in training. Sounds crazy. It was. How
did I do it? That’s what I want to share with you. I hope you will be able to
benefit from the lessons I learnt in my life.
Before I go into the how, let me tell you what
I did since then, so that you have a complete picture in your mind. From the
time you saw a young tea planter, sitting on the floor in an ISABS Lab (that is
how it worked), agonizing over his work relationships, you would have seen him
single-mindedly focused on learning how to train, to taking some very hard
decisions and risks which would have left many, freaked out. You would have
seen him speak to his first client and stake his reputation in his pitch. You
would have seen him succeed and fail but succeed more and never fail at the
same thing twice. In short, you would have seen him learning. Learning all the
time. Enjoying learning, which enabled him to take ever higher risks. You would
have seen him challenging himself and doing things which most people in any
line of work, never do i.e. write thirty-six books. Today, I have trained over
200,000 people on three continents from practically every nationality, race and
walk of life.
From where I started in training, I specialized
in leadership development. That is what excited me. To see people come in,
looking like something off the clothesline and walk out, straight and tall with
a glint in their eye and to know that I’d had something to do with that. Over
the years, now almost 40, several times I have had people come up to me in an
airport or in a restaurant and say, “I don’t know if you remember me (I almost
never do) but I attended your workshop and it changed my life.” I consider
myself fortunate that this has happened to me more than once, because even once
is enough for a lifetime, to know that you made a difference to someone.
In leadership development, I super-specialized
in family business consulting (wrote, The Business of Family Business) and
entrepreneurship development (wrote, An Entrepreneur’s Dairy) and then started
a podcast called, “Leadership is a Personal Choice”, (wrote another book by
that name) which has a global footprint, from China to the Americas with Asia,
Europe (except Greenland) and Africa in between. Maybe there is nobody
listening to my podcast in Greenland because Trump wants to buy it and they’re
all holding their breath.
How did this happen? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.
To return to 1983, I made my way back to the
Anamallais from Jaipur, taking the Pink City Express to Delhi and then the
Rajdhani Express to Chennai. Then the Nilgiri Express to Coimbatore and the bus
ride to Valpari, up the Aliyar Ghat’s forty hairpin bends. Tamilnadu Transport
Corporation bus. Nothing fancy. The big task in it being to ensure that you get
a window seat but stay upwind of anyone with motion sickness. That last one
being a matter of luck, more than anything else. All through that journey and
every waking moment thereafter, my single thought was, ‘How can I become a
The first thing that I did was to write on a
large sheet of paper, with a thick marker, “In the next five years,
I want to be a globally recognized leadership trainer.” Hindsight tells me that I was a bit off as regards the time but made good the
rest of it. The timeline was very useful because it helped me to keep focused
and gave me a sense of urgency. A goal without a timeline is a wish. Timelines
are critical to success.
The big problem was (and still is, to this day)
that there was no formal course or degree that I could take. Especially as
training is about the most hands-on thing that there is, learning to train meant
that you needed some unsuspecting souls to practice on. My being in tea
planting instead of in HR (used to be called Industrial Relations in those
days) didn’t help. So, I did two things. I read every book on training that I
could lay my hands on and I practiced on my workers and staff. Not in formal
classes because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but every day at
work. The way that happened was that I would apply something that I had learnt,
unknown to them, then I would watch for reactions, mine and theirs and record
them. That was my feedback loop on what worked and what didn’t. I had (still
do) a very good memory and I augmented that with taking notes as soon as I was
able to. I used to carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket and would write
down key words. To this day I can tell you that the pocket notebook is the
fastest way to record and access any information and outperforms every gadget
you can imagine.
I took every psychometric test that I could and
then wrote an analysis of the report compared to my own understanding of
myself. That helped me to understand psychometric testing very well. I am one
of those who believe that it is a tool and not a secret weapon which enables
the interviewer to look deep into the interviewee’s soul without his knowledge.
All these notes resulted in a couple more books. Notes are an amazingly
powerful aid to self-development. They enable you to reflect objectively on
what had happened and see what options you had at the time, which you used or
didn’t and decide how to behave in the future. Reflection needs a cool head,
free from the pressure of emotions that is usual in the heat of the moment. For
most of us, after the incident, we forget details and so when we have time to
think about it all, we don’t have data. Keeping notes helps to recall the data
so that our conceptual take on what happened and what to do later, is much
sounder and more accurate.
Another thing I did was to enroll in ISABS’s
Professional Development Program, which is a four-year distance learning
program in Applied Behavioral Science, in which you learn how to facilitate
group learning, while learning about yourself. It is a very rigorous course and
I had some of the best teachers in the course of it. Udai Pareek, Somnath
Chattopadhyay, Aroon Joshi. I also learned from Pulin Garg and Gourango
Chattopadhyay. Very rewarding. That culminated in me being inducted into ISABS
as a Professional Member. While I was doing all this, I was in a full-time job
managing a tea estate (for 7 years) and a rubber estate (for 3 years), in which
I was fully accountable for business results without any allowances for my
self-inflicted learning goals. For those who may not know what ‘managing a tea
estate’ means; an average tea estate in the Anamallais has an area of 400
hectares (multiply by 2.47 for acres), a labor force of about 800, a tea
factory, supervisors and staff totaling to about 20 and 2 or 3 Assistant
Managers. Sometimes also a resident doctor for the estate hospital. All these
were the responsibility of the Manager. The workers and Staff were all
unionized and sometimes, highly militant. Since the estates were in Tamilnadu,
and I am from Hyderabad, I needed to learn a totally new language, Tamil which
I did to a level of expertise of a native speaker. I won’t go into a Manager’s
daily routine because that is not in the scope of this article. But this should
suffice to give you an idea that there was not a moment to spare as far as I
The next challenge was to get hands-on
experience in training. For this I will be eternally grateful to my wonderful
friends who allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall in their training sessions.
However, what that meant was that I would get a letter telling me that
so-and-so was going to be doing a training session from this date to that, in
this city or the other. I lived, as I mentioned, in the Anamallais in
Tamilnadu. The train station was in Coimbatore, which was a
four-and-a-half-hour bus ride from where I lived, down the forty-hairpin bends
of the Aliyar Ghat. Then the train journey, third class (a plank for a bed) to
the city that I was going to. Usually those journeys meant anything from 24-36
hours or more. In that city, I would stay in the cheapest hotel that I could
find, in some cases, the stuff of nightmares. The room the size of a closet,
bathroom shared between several rooms and mosquitoes galore. Food off street
vendors or small cafeterias and no pay. The trainer who invited me to attend
his/her class was already doing me a favor. To expect him/her or their client
to pay me was out of the question. I would arrive before anyone else. Sit
quietly in the back of the room and take notes. Be the gofer-boy for the
trainer. And at the end of the day, I would have a debrief session with the
trainer where I would share my notes, ask questions, explore alternative ways
of teaching or handling exercises and games or fielding questions. After the
session, back to the station to retrace my steps back home. From 1983-93, I did
this in all my vacation time. I negotiated an additional fifteen days
leave-without-pay from my company. Those added to my annual vacation of
thirty-five days, I spent in learning how to train. In that entire period, I
didn’t take a single day’s vacation. All my money was spent on books or travel
cost by the cheapest means, to attend training courses. The question of comfort
in travel, proper food, decent hotels and so on, didn’t even arise. All that I
cared about was learning, using whatever resources I had. To give you an idea
of what that was, my salary in that period went from Rs. 850 – 1100 by
increments to a final princely sum of Rs. 5000 per month at the end of ten
years of service. This was my investment in myself. No return to show for it
and no certainty that there would ever be a return.
During this period, in 1985, I got married. My
wife was (and is) my greatest support. What my obsession with learning meant
for her was that whereas all her friends in the tea gardens had TVs and VCRs in
their homes, we didn’t. Not that we had anything against movies. We had no
spare cash. Every year, she would head home to her parents, and I would be off
to this or that training class. Every year for ten years. In 1984, my dear
friend Pratik Roy suggested that I should get an MBA. He told me, ‘Do an MBA
and do it from IIMA (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) because it is
not so much what you will learn but the name on your CV will open doors.’ I
agreed. But there were two problems to overcome. The regular MBA program (PGP)
was a full-time, two-year course, which I simply couldn’t afford to attend,
because living for two years without a job was out of the question. So, I
looked for something that would give me the same in a shorter time. IIMA
fortunately had another course called the MEP which was an Executive MBA,
designed for business owners and management executives with at least
five-years’ experience. It was a very high-pressure course, seven-days-a-week,
no holidays, in which they covered the entire two-year syllabus of the regular
MBA. It was taught by the same professors, used the same case studies, but had
insane hours. The only thing it didn’t have was the project which was
substituted by the work-experience requirement.
Professors Labdhi Bhandari taught us Marketing;
Pulin Garg and Indira Pareek, OB; Viswanathan Raghunathan, Finance; Bala
(Balasubramaniam), Business Strategy. And others, equally good; each of them a
privilege to study under. We had the best and their teaching, lives on in our
minds and work.
The MEP is perhaps one of the best courses of
its type because it gives you everything that an MBA gives you in a much
shorter time. The high-pressure environment meant that only those who were
serious stuck with it which was also for the good. It is very exhilarating to
study with other obsessive-compulsives. We would study sixteen to eighteen
hours a day, every day. We would drink tea and eat Maggi noodles from a street
vendor at the gate of the Institute. He ran an all-night operation as he had a
dedicated clientele in us. That high-octane tea kept us awake and we argued
cases, analyzed our assessments and shot each other’s arguments to pieces; all
adding to our learning. We would have surprise tests in class and the dreaded
CPs (Class Presentations) where our group would make a presentation on the case
that the whole class was studying which the rest of the class took great
pleasure in taking apart. If you came out alive after a CP, believe me, it
means you had something worthwhile to show. Living to see the light of day
after all those brainy types had had a go at you, left you feeling really
elated. Didn’t happen often but it did sometimes.
My second problem was money. The course cost
Rs. 30,000. My salary was Rs. 850 per month. My savings were zero. I was going
to get married and had saved up a little bit for that – I paid for my own
marriage – so couldn’t spend it on anything else. I was in a fix. But as the
saying is, ‘Where there is a will etc….’ I applied to my company for a loan to
attend this course. I told them that I would be better qualified to serve them
after the course and that I hoped that they would support my effort to educate
myself. Apparently, they were partially convinced, so they replied to say that
they would loan me half the amount, and that I would have to sign a bond to
work for the company for three years after returning from the course. Also,
that they would deduct my annual vacation of thirty-five days from the duration
of my absence and treat the rest of it as leave without pay. So, in effect,
that was added to my cost and I was still 50% short for the fees. To raise that
I sold my car. I had a Hindustan Ambassador (Indianized Morris Oxford), the
workhorse of India and one of two cars on Indian roads at the time, the other
one being Premier Padmini (Indianized Fiat). That was a big blow because I had
no idea when I would be able to afford another car. But the fee was paid, and I
was accepted for the course. The course started in April 1985, but I had
another matter to settle before that; my marriage. I was the Site Manager for
Mayura Factory construction in the Anamallais. Mayura was to be the largest tea
factory in South India and it was almost complete.
I took one week off and went to Hyderabad, got
married on March 21st and returned on the sixth day with my wife,
Samina. All that is another story but the long and short of it, relevant to
this story is that the IIMA – Executive MBA (MEP) began in April. That was
perhaps one of the toughest decisions my wife and I ever took. To separate so
soon after our marriage. But we did it. Her parents were in the UK at the time,
so she went off there. And I went to Ahmedabad for the course. What that meant
was that even though we got one week off in the middle of the program, I would still
not be able to meet my newly wedded wife, because she was in the UK. That was a
strange week indeed. Everyone else left for their break. I had nowhere to go,
or rather, no desire to go anywhere. So, I stayed on at the IIMA all through
the week, alone. The point of all this is to show that if you want something
badly enough then you need to take tough decisions. In my case, I lost pay,
took a loan, sold my car, left my wife soon after we got married, all to get
the Executive MBA which I considered very important. My wife supported me in
this and took everything in her stride, including living a very frugal life for
over a decade. After the course, we got back to Anamallais and I worked not for
three years but until 1993. Eventually in 1993, I decided that I needed to take
the final test of the pudding; starting up my own company.
I have talked about three things: Focus +
Investment + Consistency. I did all of them. But there is a final one: Risk.
Without taking risk, you can never know if what you did would really work.
Risk, to a startup is like the first solo flight to a new pilot. That is when
all his training shows up. There is no shortcut to this. Risk must be taken and
so I started Yawar Baig & Associates in Bangalore in 1994. That sounds simpler
than it was. It was simple enough to start a proprietorship company. The trick
was to get business. My problem was that all my experience was as a hands-on
operations man in manufacturing and large-scale agriculture and I was
attempting to enter the domain of leadership training. I had no contacts in
‘Learning & Development’ or in ‘Human Resource Management’. And most of
all, I had no track record of training. But I had a lot of energy and I wasn’t
going to let what I didn’t have, prevent me from doing what I had set my heart
on i.e. become a globally recognized leadership trainer. I hit the road. I made
a list of all the MNCs (multinational companies) in Bangalore and started
calling their heads. I would call the CEO or the Head of HR. I discovered that
calling the CEO was a better deal than the HR Head. An operations man (there
were no women CEOs at that time in Bangalore) was more likely to understand me
than an HR person. Also, CEOs make decisions and don’t need to ask anyone else
before deciding. There was a risk involved in that if the CEO said, ‘No’, then
there was nobody else to go to. But then I reckoned that was better than going
from one person to another until you got to a CEO who may still say, ‘No.’ The
key was to get him to say, ‘Yes’, and not ‘No’.
I prepared my pitch, rehearsed it a million
times and called. This was the Australian head of the IT operation for ANZ
bank. I got his direct number from another friend who worked in that company
along with the warning that he had a very short fuse. I called and he answered
immediately and that’s when I discovered that there was a hole in my research;
I had never heard an Australian accent before. This was 1994. I had no PC.
There was no Google Search for Australian accents. In fact, there was no Google
and wouldn’t be for another four years. I didn’t know any Australians and by
the time I guessed what he was saying, he almost hung up. Mercifully, he said,
‘Hello! Are you there?’ I said, ‘Yes Sir. I am.’ And then I launched into my
pitch (little did I know that later, I would be teaching people how to do
‘Elevator Speeches’) and asked him for an appointment. He said, ‘Will five
minutes do?’ I replied, ‘Yes Sir. Thank you. See you tomorrow.’ Later I
wondered if he was trying to insult me or challenge me or what the meaning of,
‘Will five minutes do?’ was. I went the next day, suit and tie, well in advance
of the time. He greeted me and we started talking. He wanted training for his
entry level engineers on human skills to lead IT Project Teams. After my pitch
which took exactly four minutes, I said to him, ‘Thank you for your time Sir. I
am finished.’ He said, ‘Na! Let’s talk about what I want you to do.’ That
meeting went on for forty-five minutes
He said to me, ‘I want you to work with another
consultant who is working with us’, and called in Julius Aib, who was to become
one of my dearest friends and Aikido Sensei. Julius would teach the Project
Management side of the course on “Project Manager Workbench” (PMW) and I would
teach the human skills to lead teams. I designed a course called, ‘Critical
Human Skills for Project Leadership’ and Julius and I taught it in that company
for three years. Regular work is a lifeline for a startup consulting firm and
that is how I got it. This course became very popular and I taught it in GE,
IBM, Motorola, Wartsila (in Saudi Arabia), Andersen Corporation in the US and
in many other firms.
The second meeting which stands out was with a
French IT firm which had an Indian American CEO. A friend of mine got me a
meeting with him. He was looking for a specific solution; and that was, how to
get his direct reports to speak up in his meetings. He said to me, ‘They always
agree with me. They never disagree. Then they don’t do what they agreed to do.
That freaks me out.’ I realized what the issue was. He was an Indian by
descent, but he was American through and through. He was born and raised in the
US and had never worked in India. Now he was heading an Indian team and for his
bad luck, he looked Indian. I say bad luck because if he had been white, they
would have treated him differently and made allowances for his foreignness. But
because he looked Indian, they treated him as an Indian, including speaking to
each other in their local languages, none of which he understood. Clearly all
this was hassling him and telling on the productivity of his team and on
everyone’s happiness. He asked me if I had a solution.
‘Yes, I do, but I want to observe one of your
meetings first before I tell you what I would like to do to solve your
problem.’ He agreed. The meeting was an eyeopener and confirmed my diagnosis of
what was happening. It went like this:
They were discussing an issue related to
finance. The CEO described the issue (strong American accent) and then asked
for the opinions of his team. They were all Vice Presidents of different
functions. The first to speak was the VP Finance. As soon as he made his point,
the CEO, slapped his hand on the table and said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea.
Anyone else?’ There was dead silence. Nobody spoke a word. Deadpan expressions
on the face, avoiding any direct eye contact with the CEO. He asked for other
ideas a couple of times more; his face started to get red and he looked like he
would rise like a ballistic missile and disappear through the ceiling. I
decided to intervene and said, ‘Why don’t we take a break and have some
coffee?’ Everyone started breathing again and stood up. The CEO realized that
this was a deliberate tactic on my part and cooperated and said, ‘That is a
good idea. Let’s take a break.’ As we left the room, I took him aside into an
empty office. As soon as the door shut, he burst out, ‘See what I told you?
This is what they do all the time. They clam up. Nobody gives any ideas. And
these are all VPs and supposed to be bright people.’
I said to him, ‘Did you realize what happened
there? What you did?’
He looked injured and angry, ‘What did I do? I
only appreciated the man. What’s wrong with that? In America they would have
come up with a hundred ideas after that affirmation.’
‘You are right, but this is not America and
they are not American. This is India and in our culture the cost of ‘failure’
is very high. Nobody wants to be wrong. And definitely not in public. When you
slapped your hand on the table and said, ‘Fantastic idea’, that set the
standard. ‘Fantastic’ in our culture is the ultimate. It is not a simple word
as in the American culture. In India, fantastic means, FANTASTIC. And when you
say that with a slap of your palm on the table, it is sealed. You are in effect
saying to them, ‘Here is the best possible idea that there can be. I challenge
you to come up with a better one.’ Nobody then wants to take the risk to say
something only to possibly have it discarded. Losing face is a very big thing
in our culture.’
He listened in silence. Then he asked me, ‘What
do you want to do about this?’
‘I will design a workshop on cross-cultural
communication, and we will do it as an offsite for two days for your team.’
‘What will it cost?’
‘5000 per day plus my costs.’
‘How do I know it will work?’
‘You don’t. So, let me suggest a deal. How
about you pay me only if it works. But if it works, then not only will you pay
me, but I want you to call your friends and tell them about it and ask them to
give me appointments to meet them.’
He looked at me with a quizzical look in his
eye and said, ‘I like your spirit. It’s a deal.’
As they say, the rest is history. He was true
to his word. Not only did he pay me, but he called other CEOs and I got
appointments with almost every CEO there was. After all I had one of their own
rooting for me.
You can read all this and more in my book, ‘An
Excitement is danger that anticipates a happy
ending. That is the joy of risk taking, without which there can be no success.
Focus + Investment + Consistency and
is the bottom line. To continue to do that, not once, not twice, but all your
life. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.
Success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
2. That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
3. That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This seems to extend even more to their
own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the
old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power.
That is also why such organizations
finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against
authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.
This fear of failure has many respectable
names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Respecting elders or tradition,
Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about
change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking with a
satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all
growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with
impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create.
This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately,
albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure
if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the
In my view, the
alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. Anglo American which owns 85% of De Beers Group, the premier diamond company in the world has an entire department, headed by one of the most brilliant men that I have ever met, Clem Sunter to do Scenario Planning. I had the honor of being a co-speaker with him at a WMO Conference in Pretoria. Clem Sunter and his team conceptualize both opportunity and threat scenarios to enable Anglo American to prepare for them well in advance. I strongly recommend that you read Clem Sunter and Chantell Illbury’s book, “The Mind of a Fox”, to understand what Scenario Planning is and how critical to survival and development it is for individuals, companies, people and countries. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical
requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do
– if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want
to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life.
I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best
results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show
championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions
every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done
before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever
I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I
always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
That is what passion is all about. Let
me try to describe passion by starting with what it is not. Passion is not
‘interest’ or ‘liking’. It is obsession. Single minded obsession about the
thing that you are passionate about which enables you to invest your best in
the pursuit of your goal. It is not about major investment. It is not about
significant investment. It is about total investment. All your time, all your
energy, all your money, all your thought, feeling, emotion, effort, sweat and
tears; everything. People who are passionate live, think, feel, sleep, dream, wake
and work to achieve their passion. And nothing else. The issue of ‘nothing else’
is very important. This is a checklist for those who want to test and see if
they are passionate about whatever they think they are passionate about. See how
many of these things you can tick off in your life. If you miss even one, then to
that extent you are not passionate. You may be interested. Even very
interested, but you are not passionate. Believe me, that is often the line
between success and failure. It is your choice and you are responsible. Nobody
To be passionate is not to have a Plan
B. Plan B is your insurance, it is your safety net, it is your fall back.
Passionate people don’t need it because they don’t intend to fail. They have
total commitment. See this clip of the lioness attacking the zebra. That is
total commitment. She has no Plan B. She doesn’t let go even when the zebra
somersaults and lands on top of her. A zebra that size is at least 200
kilograms. Imagine that landing on you and yet you don’t let go. That is
passion and when you work with that kind of passion, there is only one result.
Success. So, no Plan B. I have worked like this all my life and today at age
63, I don’t have a single regret about living this way. As a matter of fact, I am
in the process of starting a new phase in my life being a mentor to anyone demented
enough to want me as a mentor. That’s my payback to those who invested their
time and effort in me. Many have passed away, but they would be happy to know
that I am carrying their contribution forward. They wouldn’t want it any other
way. When people ask me why I don’t have a Plan B, I say to them, ‘Because I
don’t plan to fail.’ That is not an arrogant statement. I say that because I am
totally committed to what I do and have total faith in the help of Allahﷻ. He never let me down and I am content and
If you need to be woken up in the
morning; even if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are not passionate. If
you need to be reminded, you are not passionate. If you need material rewards,
the praise of others, designations and titles, medals and awards; if you need
anything external, you are not passionate. If you are satisfied with your
output, you are not passionate.
Passion is its own payment, its own
reward. This is essential to understand and experience because otherwise you
can’t sustain passion. Ask where you are likely to find Usain Bolt on the
morning after he received the Olympic Gold Medal. The answer is, ‘On the
track.’ Jane Goodall was passionate about chimpanzees. She studied them, worked
with them, lived among them and died among them. That is passion. Passion is to
have what I call Positive Dissatisfaction or Positive Stress. This is not the
stress that comes from the conflict of goals, emotions, fears and desires. This
is the excitement of always trying to do better than you did before. Not
because someone is pushing you. Not because someone is watching you or
monitoring your actions. If you are passionate and work with passion, you will
find yourself surrounded with satisfied people. That will be your biggest challenge.
The biggest danger. The biggest incentive to relax and become complacent. You
will not be walking through disapproval but through huge approval and appreciation.
People will praise you and extol your virtues and applaud your output. They will
tell you that they never saw or experienced anything as good as what you did.
They will tell you that you changed their lives, their work, their belief in
themselves. They will tell you that they never met anyone like you and that you
are the best. The passionate person appreciates all that and is grateful, but
he will never become complacent. He will never be satisfied and say, ‘I have
arrived.’ For the passionate person, the journey is the destination; the race
is the winning. Not some finish line. Passion is its own reward. Passionate
people take joy from the effort. They do because they are. They are because
they do. They do because they are trying to see what the best that they can do
is. And nobody ever knows the best that they can do.
Having said all that, it is not that I
succeeded in every endeavor. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I
failed, I used the technique that I learnt early in life; to objectively analyze
failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification
of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See
what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular
mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool
proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not
leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that
the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I
have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to
A third principle that I have always
tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it
without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the
feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What I
intended to convey was less important than what I did convey. What the other
person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey
the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all,
perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is
absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me,
this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as
inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do.
Nothing less. If I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in
myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is
not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution.
And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a
term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces
stress. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their
work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile.
The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but
with not having enough of it.
The strange thing in life is that
organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize
effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give
you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is
Friday. This is a small party at the end of the workday on Friday where all
employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact
that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which
was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We
Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian
companies picked up this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it
as a perk in their recruitment spiels.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who
was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this
I asked him, “Do you really want people
to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said to him, “To me, if someone who
works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal.
It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and
that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go
home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on
Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment
where people would actually love to go to work.”
“You are a real spoilsport,” said my
friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”
Take another case. You have a salesperson
who is magical. She or he is an inspired salesperson. They can sell the
Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and
exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You
send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most
organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.
You achieved two things: Firstly, you
were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks
and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more
importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work
is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do
it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really
want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas. So, I say,
give them the money and let them do whatever they want with it but don’t take
them off doing what they love to do.
Consider the alternative. Passionate people
who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would
pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get
if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it?
And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All
missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of
hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to
them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work.
Just to close the point I am making here;
a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call
work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in
education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this
doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of
achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a
very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead
their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the
organizations they work for.
It is essential for one to take stock
from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Which brings me to the final question: what is a good goal?
A good goal in my view has two
It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
It is big enough to scare you.
A goal that is not scary will not
generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of
extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low
expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have
experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been
because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to
tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big,
scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see
a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood.
You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored,
inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you
need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know,
the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your
expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the
tigers that will make you run.
It’s true that tigers
are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.
Before God’s footstool to confess A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; “I failed,” he cried. The Master said, “Thou didst thy best—that is success!”
It was December 1980. I was sitting on the veranda of my house in Guyana. It was about 9.00 pm, dark, balmy evening in the tropics. As usual on most days in this season, it had rained in the day and stopped. The air was heavy with moisture but the breeze, cool. Before me was the orange orchard of the Staff Hill, bounded on the far side by the forest. The rain-forest of Guyana. The evening had signed off to the night by the booming calls of the Howler monkeys who also announced the beginning of the new day. Scarlet Macaws flew to their roosts, talking to each other. I also heard the chatter of the Sakiwinki (Common Squirrel Monkey) families settling into their resting places. The forest was now relatively quiet, except for the singing of the Cicadas, whose song rose and fell in waves like those of the ocean. Sometimes they would fall totally silent, only to start again in the middle of my deep breath of relief, to remind me that the only way to live with Cicadas, as with some kinds of people was to get used to them. The forest is never totally silent because the forest is a living being. It has living beings in it, but it is itself a living unit which breathes, sings, groans and talks to those who know how to listen. The forest has its own language, which you need to learn, if you want to enjoy being in the forest. Otherwise the forest can be an alien, ominous, even threatening presence to those who don’t understand it.
I spent my whole life
from the school days, to this, in forests. Not that I lived inside them but I
lived near them and where I didn’t have forests near me, like now when I live
in a huge, concrete labyrinth called a city; I make the effort to go to the
forest at least once every quarter, simply to breathe. Otherwise I feel
suffocated and start dying slowly, inside. The forest rejuvenates me, gives me
new life, energizes me and enables me to go on for a while longer. So, that
night I simply sat on my veranda and was one with the forest.
But where does the poem
I began with, come into this story? You ask.
That night, I had finished a very long and protracted negotiation with the union, a marathon session over 72 hours, practically non-stop. But still at the end, we were waiting to see what the union would do. Accept or not. That is when I recalled this poem, which my very wise and dear friend and boss, Nick Adams had mentioned once. You will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ You will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ As someone said, ‘You don’t lose the race when you fall. You lose the race when you fail to rise.’ As long as you rise and keep running, you are in the race. But if you remain down, then you are out of the race. Who decides whether you rise or not?
We are brought up
wrong. In many more ways than one. Let me give you an example. Someone told me
a very tragic story about a highly successful Indian businessman in the US, who
one day, shot himself, his wife and two children, obviously not in that order.
When the case was analyzed, it turned out that he had fallen on hard times and
though he had property which he could sell to settle his debts, he would have
been reduced to penury and would have had to start all over again. He chose
instead to end it all and killed his whole family as well. Someone commented on
this story and said, “The problem is that he was taught how to deal with
success, not with failure. We must learn how to deal with failure.” That may
sound a bit like loser-talk; learn how to deal with failure? Think about it
while I tell you another story.
This is about Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric. The story goes that one night Edison’s famous laboratory caught fire. It was housed in a separate building and before anyone was alerted and could do anything, the whole building and everything inside was a huge conflagration. Edison’s son, Thomas Alva Jr. said, “I was very anxious about my Dad and rushed to see where he was. This was his entire life’s work going up in flames and I was afraid that he would perhaps do something drastic at this tragedy. When I found him, he was standing with his hands folded behind his back, watching the fire. He saw me and said, “Go call your Mom. She is not going to see such a magnificent fire in a hurry.” Thomas Alva says, “I couldn’t help myself but ask him, “But Dad, that is your entire life’s work!” Thomas Edison replied, “Tell me, how many people have the chance to have all their mistakes erased at once? Now go and call your Mother.”
I said that we are
brought up wrong because we are conditioned to seek outcomes and to not only
feel sad, glad, bad, mad based on them but to judge ourselves on the basis of results.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Especially those who know me and know how focused on
results I myself, am. I am not against focusing on results, but on focusing on
them to the exclusion of everything else. I submit that if you focus on the result
alone, that can be detrimental to the result itself and so it is a
What must I focus on,
if not on the result? You ask.
Focus on the process. Focus
on the way. Enjoy the effort. Monitor what you are doing and how you
are doing it. Put metrics on the effort and as I said, enjoy it. The reality of
life is that there are no final results. Every result is like a rest spot in a marathon.
You can stop for a bit, while the rules of the game get changed. Then you run
again. Not in the marathon; in life. The truth is that most of our life, we are
going to be engaged in the process. Most of our time, all our effort and resources
are going to be engaged on the way to get to our destination. If we don’t enjoy
that, then we are going to be very miserable. But if we enjoy the journey, then
we will live a very happy life. As for the destination, well, the right road will
get you there, but only if you keep walking. So, Johnny Walker, keep walking.
In Guyana I lived in a small mining town called Kwakwani, which clung to the bank of the Berbice River, with the ever-present forest threatening to engulf it in an unwary moment. We generated our own electricity using a generator that had a huge flywheel to take care of providing energy for the engine after it delivers the power stroke. Look it up if you are interested in the role of the flywheel in power generation. My point however is different. The flywheel, for those who have never seen one, is a huge wheel with spokes. The one in Kwakwani had a diameter of 30 feet and was made of cast iron. It was a massive piece of machinery. We never allowed the engine to stop but on the annual maintenance day, when the engine had to be stopped for a few hours, the sight of the restarting was very amazing and instructive. To get the flywheel to start turning, it took a huge effort because it was so heavy. After applying all the effort, it would turn just slightly. Sometimes it would simply settle back in place, a heartbreaking thing to see for those who had bust a gut to get it to move. But you never gave up because you knew one thing and that was, that once it started turning, it would go on turning literally forever. If those trying to get the flywheel to move, focus on results, they will lose heart, because for the longest while there are no results, despite all your effort. But if they focus on the process, see if they are pushing hard enough, do whatever it takes to keep pushing, then the result is inevitable and then all they need to do is to stand by and watch it happen.
My most inspirational
creatures in the wild are small birds. Birds which are so small that when they
perch on a blade of grass, it doesn’t bend with their weight. These birds,
their eggs and young, are prey and food for everything that eats meat. And they
can’t do anything to defend themselves or to protect their young. Yet they thrive.
How do they do that? They do it by focusing on the process.
Here is my conversation with one of them, who perched on a little twig right before me and my camera in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, with a neatly tied blade of grass in her beak. “How do you do it?” I asked.
“I am a bird. It is
my job to build a nest and raise young. I do that job to the best of my ability.
If in the process, my nest is destroyed, I simply start building again. If I build
the nest and lay eggs but before they can hatch a tree snake, a rat, a monitor
lizard or anything else finds my nest, then I escape and let the predator eat
the eggs. I can’t help it. I can’t protect them. But once the predator has left,
I build another nest and I lay some more eggs and I incubate them. It is
heartbreaking when predators find my nest with my young in it. Once again, I must
leave and watch my babies being eaten before my eyes. But then what do I do? I
build another nest. I lay some more eggs and I raise some more babies. That is
why in the end, I survive and my tribe increases.”
I ask you, ‘Have you
ever seen a depressed Bulbul?’ I haven’t. They have no time for depression. They
never give up. They know what they are supposed to do. They do it until they
succeed. No matter how many times they fail in the process. No matter how long
it takes. They keep at it until they succeed. And in the end, they always succeed.