Sunday, December 22, 2013

Inspirations (12 of 25) – Robert Kelley (Author of “How to Be a Star at Work”)

Robert Kelley, with his book, “How to Be a Star at Work” did me a tremendous service - he made me rid myself off a demon called self-doubt and made me feel completely empowered as a professional.  If you haven’t read his book, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that it is one of those self-help books that is full of flowery prose and utopian ideas.  But in truth, Professor Kelley’s book is a far cry from that.  More on that in a bit.  First, let me give you a bit of history to provide some context.  Actually, it’s not “his-tory.”  It’s my story!

As I look back on my days as a student, I think it is safe to say that I was a much better and wiser student at 27 (during my business school days) than I was at 17.  I hit some purple patches as a student in middle school but in high school, I was very mediocre (and, that might sound charitable to those that have known me during those years!).  The frustrating thing for those that cared about me was that they all knew that I was capable of much better things than my grades suggested.  As I started excelling in school during my undergrad years and later as a graduate student, I knew one thing for sure.  A good work ethic- under the watchful, supportive eyes of my parents- was one key difference between my good and bad years as a student.  During my five years as a software engineer, I continued to have a fairly good work ethic and it definitely stood me in good stead.  But it is one thing to work hard and another thing to work smartly.  During my years as a software professional, I had the mindset of a good student that would work on things assigned to him and (mostly) completed his work on time.  I used to be happy with my work but on days when things were not great at work, somewhere within, there was a gnawing feeling.  Would my work ethic, which had transformed me as a student during my undergrad years, be good enough to make me realize my full potential as a professional?  I hadn’t quite found the answer to that question when I decided to return to school to pursue an MBA.  At this stage, I used to (literally) have nightmares of my high school days and would get dreams such as not finishing an exam on time and failing big time!  I smile now as I think about it but I certainly didn’t smile when I went through those days and nights of self-questioning.

Going into my MBA after having worked for five years, I knew that I was interested in marketing and I wanted to get an education to supplement my interest.  But I also knew that I was looking for something more than marketing courses.  I wanted an experience that would change my attitude as a professional.  In the confines of a school, I had a safe environment in which I could take chances, learn new things and even fail honorably if that meant that I learned something in the process.  As I introspected on my prior years as a student in the US, I realized that I had a fear of failure and was obsessed about grades.  During business school, I kept repeating to myself that I had quit my job not just to get good grades but to find professors and peers who would help me discover things about myself and evolve as a professional.  Good grades had to be a byproduct of a sound learning experience.  There was going to be no two ways about that.  That was when two people changed my life forever.  One was Randy Pausch, whom I have written about and spoken about at multiple places.  The other was Robert Kelley.  Professor Kelley taught a class called, “Developing Star Performers.”  A second-year student had casually mentioned that it was a very “different” course.  It was one of those electives that I was on the fence on at the time of signing up for different courses.  But I decided to take it anyway since the title definitely held intrigue!

On Day 1 of this course, sitting in a huge auditorium amidst 60-70 other students, I was eager to see the kind of tone that the Professor was going to set.  Was this going to be a series of platitudes about star performers?  Since the reading material for the course was his own book, would this course just be an advertisement for his book?  Or, was it going to be something else?  Well, 20 minutes into the session, I knew the answer.  He started off with a quiz on star performers vs. average performers.  He asked us to answer True/False to a series of statements.  Statements such as, “Star performers have higher IQs than average performers.”  “Star performers have better innate leadership qualities,” etc.  Once we took the quiz, he blindsided us with something.  He said that all those statements were false!  Amidst a bunch of “what the heck” responses from students, he said something that changed me as a professional forever.  What separates star performers from the rest is not what they have but how they use what they have.  Pause to read that line again since my entire write-up is a tribute to Professor Kelley for having come up with that.  This was the set up for a discussion of the “star performer model” where he listed a set of important traits and behaviors that star performers excel in, such as taking initiative, building a knowledge network and engaging in self-management.   The fact that he created this model based on extensive research at companies such as AT&T, 3M and Hewlett Packard also gave me the confidence that he did not pluck these out of thin air and instead, these were observed behaviors of star performers. 

Today (as of Dec 2013), having worked for nearly five years after business school, I can reflect on my career pre-MBA (my five years as a software engineer) vis-√†-vis post-MBA and state that the years after my MBA have been more fulfilling and rewarding.  The ghosts of self-doubt that had seeped into me during my years of high school had only been partly exorcised during my initial successful years as a student in the US.  Kelley’s course really was the starting point for me to get rid of the residue!  Through his chapters on taking initiative and building a knowledge network, he convinced me that I had it in me – just like anyone else – to engage in certain behaviors and transform myself into a star performer.  In other words, the one that had to truly make me feel empowered was not my manager (though a supportive manager helps!) but really, myself.  In the past five years, a lot of the successes that I have had have been a result of following some of the sound pieces of advice that he has provided in his book.  Though I don’t consider myself a star performer yet, I know that I will feel a sense of accomplishment just in my attempt to become one.


I am 32 years old.  And, I have many more years as a professional to come.  And, in those years, one thing that I will look to as a feedback loop of sorts is Professor Kelley’s book.  Just in case any demons stop by to say, Hello!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Inspirations (11 of 25) - Balaji Balasubramaniam (BB)

Inspirations (11 of 25) – Balaji Balasubramaniam (BB)

An accessible expert

Two things that make modern film criticism a very unenviable task are 1. It is difficult to write a review that is accessible yet is professional enough to merit serious thought and 2. For those that don’t get paid to write film reviews, it requires tremendous commitment and time management skills to watching films and writing analytical pieces in addition to one’s day job and spending quality time with family.  One person that has managed to do both of these successfully for close to 15 years is Balaji Balasubramaniam (aka) BB, a software engineer by profession and a film critic by choice (http://www.bbthots.com)

One of the things that I admire a lot about BB is how much he has evolved as a critic.  Without any formal training in film criticism, he has, over the years, managed to combine his love for writing and love for the movies with an increasingly analytical approach to writing that goes beyond just calling a film good or bad and instead, makes interesting observations.  The best part of it is that he has managed to always keep his writing accessible to the lay person who might be thrown off by fancy language or film jargon.  His reviews of “Match Point” (http://bbthots.blogspot.com/2006/05/match-point.html) and “Iruvar” (http://bbthots.com/reviews/) are cases in point.  In the former, you will see how he makes a very keen observation of Emily Mortimer’s character in his masterful review of Woody Allen’s masterpiece.  And in the latter, note how he draws our attention to how Prakash Raj makes concerted efforts to make things happen while things just happen to the Mohan Lal character.  This is a far cry from his early reviews where he made comments like, “a nice movie without a single boring moment.”  I say this not to take a cheap shot but rather, as an attempt to express my admiration at how much he has grown as a writer just out of his own interest and passion. 

Clarity of thought and economy of words are things that you will observe not only in his film essays but also his travel entries, book reviews and lovingly written pieces about his children.  I think it is safe to say that my own writing has improved thanks to reading his reviews.  When I met with him in person a couple of weeks back, I told him how, for instance, his “Hey! Ram” review introduced me to the term, tour de force

An accessible inspiration

Over the past few months, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to include BB in my list of inspirations.  But I took a while to form my thoughts as to why I considered him an inspiration as opposed to merely a very good writer whose blog I follow.  The reasons are two-fold.  The first reason is that I took not only reviewing films but also watching films seriously after reading his reviews.  In the 90s, I used to be a huge fan of DS Ramanujam, the film critic who wrote many a memorable essay on Tamil films for “The Hindu.”  But my moving to the US in the late 90s coincided with his retirement and as a result, there was hardly a film reviewer whose writing inspired me to watch films with a keen eye.  But very quickly, I discovered BB’s site to be a must-read as I awaited video cassettes (yes, they were in existence just a decade ago!) of Tamil movies at our Indian store in Memphis, Tennessee.  Even though I am not nearly as prolific as he is, his writings inspired me to watch movies with an analytical eye and approach film criticism with a level of maturity that would be expected of, say, a book reviewer. 

The second, more practical reason why I consider him an inspiration is that he continues to inspire me to manage my time well and create time for writing, which is something that I am passionate about.  When it comes to engaging in hobbies that demand creativity and focus, we invariably hide behind the convenient excuse, “Oh, I have no time for this in the midst of my busy schedule!”  Over the years, the frequency of my writings has waxed and waned due to personal reasons.  But last month, my wife and I bought a new laptop (since our old one was practically unusable!) and I told my wife that I will use this purchase as an incentive to start writing at least an article a week.  All this might (rightfully) sound like mundane detail that might not deserve a place in an article about an “inspiration.”  But a lot of times, it is a lack of awareness of simple, self-imposed barriers that hinder our creativity.  Through a number of conversations that I’ve had with my wife in the recent past, I have realized that we both admire BB’s time management (we even asked him about it when we met with him recently) and commitment to engaging in a hobby that is not passive (like watching TV) but instead, is creatively stimulating.  As a recent TIME article pointed out, some people tend to mistakenly think that work (that we are assigned) tends to expand to fit the time that we have and that we don’t find enough time for the things that we truly want to do.  But the article made the crucial point that time will expand to fit the things that we truly want to focus on.  Thank you, BB, for driving home that counterintuitive line of thought. 

PS: I find it to be incredibly serendipitous that the first article that I write as part of my “one article a week” goal is about the person that inspired me to do so!