Monday, May 2, 2016

Life’s Little Teachers: A few anecdotes, a few lessons

One of the things that I have realized as I read books like Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” and Anu Hasan’s “Sunny Side Up” is that the more aware one is, the more memorable are the little moments and those little lessons that life affords us.  These moments and the people that I mention here might not merit a place in my “Inspirations” series.  But in their own way, these mostly positive memories have stayed in my mind for a very long time.  So, without further ado, here you go:

(Disclaimer – Over the years, I have been the lucky recipient of some tremendous advice and several golden nuggets from my near and dear.  I have not included those ‘big’ moments and epiphanies in this list and instead, have chosen to focus on smaller moments and incidents.)

Arab Exodus” – this is one of my favorite memories from my high school days.  One of my class mates Vijay was a brilliant student who had amazing powers of concentration.  He would always listen to lectures intently while the less serious ones like yours truly would be blithely unconcerned about the lecture and instead engage in ‘meaningful’ (!) debates with our bench mates on topics such as, "Who is the better music director?  Ilayaraja or Rahman?"  And, when we took notes, the rest of us would usually copy what was written on the black board by the teacher.  I didn’t know what Vijay's notes looked like…until one day, when I borrowed his history notebook since I had been unwell and had missed classes the previous day.  As I started going through it, I was quite stunned – he had not only absorbed the essence of the lecture's contents but also summarized it in crisp phrases that demonstrated his keen understanding of the material.  One of his section headers is still absolutely fresh in my mind – “Arab Exodus.”  Especially because it was not a term used by the teacher!  The usage of the word “exodus” - which I thought was splendid for a 13-year old - was his.  The style of notes was entirely his!  It's still something I remember fondly when I take notes during meetings at work!

Please give him some water first” – My Dad’s work had brought us to the US in 1998 after I had completed high school in India.  My Chithappa had lived in the US since ’81.  So, while I had grown very fond of him thanks to his few trips to India, I had spent quite a bit of quality time with him when I had visited the US in ’91 as a 10-year old.  One thing that I remember vividly was his quiet, understated compassion towards my grandparents (who had lived with him).  In ’98, I was to witness another instance of that genuine compassion towards his loved ones.  My Dad had rarely run on the treadmill.  But when we were in my Chithappa’s house, he decided to give it a try.  Without warming up enough, he started to run at a fast pace.  After a few minutes, I heard an almighty scream…literally.  My Dad was screaming, “Narayana!”  He had gotten off the treadmill, was panting for breath and was in tremendous discomfort.  I started chiding him for not heeding my well-meaning advice.  My Chithappa calmly walked up to me and said, “Please give him some water first.  You can chide him to your heart’s content but don't do that now.  At least wait till his pain subsides.”  Simple words but some chords were struck, I’d like to think. 

Ken’s priorities - While in business school, I was studying for the final exam of an Operations Research course.  There were two broad areas to study: 1) theoretical concepts and 2) case analyses.  The Professor had mentioned that the exam would contain some pointed questions from the cases for which we had to re-read all of the cases at least once before the exam.  I called Ken, a peer of mine the night before the exam to ask some clarifying questions.  I also casually asked what material he hadn’t studied as yet.  He replied, “Ram, I still have to re-read some of the cases.  But I am going to first make sure that I finish studying all the theory material.  If I miss some specific case related questions on tomorrow’s exam, I might not get a great grade.  But more than that, I want to make sure that I have gotten the theoretical foundations from this class well.  That’s what is ultimately important, right?”  I muttered, “Oh, yeah…” and that was the end of the conversation.  But it was only later when I reflected on what he said that I appreciated the significance of his words.  The night before a final exam that was worth 40% of the course grade, here was a person who was calm enough to have a clear mind and a clearer goal: learning the material well. 

Sachin runs hard…” – I once asked film director Vasanth whether it’s ever bothered him when the actors in his movies sometimes walk away with more laurels than he does.  I asked this question not to feed his ego.  But instead, I knew his style of direction which is to act out every scene for every performer.  He smiled and said, “Sachin runs hard even when he’s the non-striker!  In the end, it’s a run for the team!”  Probably owing to the cricket analogy, it’s something that played a small but meaningful role in making me a better team player.  At least, I think so; I must check this with my teammates!

Now to my last story below... This is a personal favorite.  It’s slightly long but read it and you’ll see why.

The street sometimes makes you smarter – One of the chief pleasures of street cricket is that when taken seriously, it can teach you a lot of nifty little lessons.  There is one ‘series’ (it was dead serious I tell you!) that I played in my friend's huge backyard that is an absolutely indelible memory.  Some basic details first – when we chose the teams (4 players a side, 8 overs a side), I had agreed (nobody forced me) to captaining a side that was a much weaker bowling unit.  On paper, the batting strength of the teams was about the same.  But apart from myself, hardly anyone in my side could turn their arms over for a decent, inexpensive over.  Plus, I had agreed (again, absolutely nobody forced me) to a rule that every bowler be allowed only two overs.  It was a huge misstep given the fact that we were a much inferior bowling side.  So, even though I was quite a regular bowler, I could bowl only two of the eight stipulated overs with the other six being bowled by much weaker bowlers (who were better batsmen) on my team.  So, as a captain, I had selected a sub-par team and had agreed to a rule that clearly disadvantaged us, hoping that we would do well anyway.  How wrong I was to be.

In the first game, we were thrashed out of sight by my opposing team- led by my friend Harish - which batted first.  When we batted, our batsmen threw their wickets away in trying to chase the big score.  I came in last and in my frustration, threw my wicket away as well, with a senseless shot.  Series score 0-1. 

In the second game, we were thrashed out of sight by my opposing team which batted first.  When we batted, our batsmen threw their wickets in trying to chase the big score. (The copy–paste from the previous paragraph is intentional!)  We were 13/3 in the third over, chasing 57 in a maximum of eight overs.  I came in last but this time, I was determined.  (By the way, given the small teams, we didn’t bat in pairs; we came in individually!)  I told myself that I was going to last until the end of the innings and that there was no way I was going to throw my wicket away.  There was one weak bowler in their ranks and I decided that I would try and take at least 20 runs from his two overs and milk the rest of them without doing anything risky.  Everything went per plan.  The last over was bowled by one of their best bowlers.  With 9 runs required, I didn’t panic.  A voice went off in my mind that said, “I am winning.”  The kind of blind confidence that I enjoyed in myself was ephemeral yet magical.  As we inched closer, I first wanted to ensure that we didn’t lose and so, first worked towards leveling the scores.  Then, with one run required, I calmly placed the ball in a gap on the off-side.  We won the match, yes.  But more importantly, within myself, I reached a ‘high’ that I revisit in my mind even now whenever I feel low.  It was an instance when I channeled my anger - at my side's performance - purposefully.  It was an instance when I believed in myself, completely, unequivocally and not for a moment, did I think that we would lose.  Series tied 1-1.

For the third match, I was desperate to win the toss so that we could bowl and chase a target again.  But Harish won the toss and wisely chose to bowl at us knowing that with our new found confidence that we might chase any target.  Our batting floundered again.  I made the crucial mistake of not opening the innings, thereby squandered the chance of carrying my form from the previous match.  Instead, I erroneously chose to rest up for a few minutes, hoping that my fellow batsmen would have gotten inspiration from our previous victory.  That was not to be as they wilted under some accurate bowling.  I should have come in to bat after maybe the fall of the first wicket.  But I didn't.  Before I could think, wickets fell in a heap quickly.  My failure to act quickly cost us dearly.  When I came in, I knew that whatever target we set would be overcome by Harish’s team given our weak bowling.  But still, I wanted to bat out the innings.  That was not to be as I got an inside edge (off their weakest bowler actually!) and was bowled cheaply.  We set them a paltry total which they overcame quite easily.  We lost the series 1-2.  

Yes, we lost.  But I certainly gained a few insights along the way.  Sure, in the end, the better side won.  But we could have maximized our chances by believing in ourselves, sticking to the basics and not playing those silly shots (myself included) like we did in the first game.  I should have acted decisively in the third game by coming in at at least the fall of the first wicket to avert the collapse that followed.  I have reflected on that day numerous times since it happened way back in 2009.  Be it at work or otherwise, I have grown acutely aware of the team that I am a part of, the rules that I play with.  Sure, sometimes luck has a role to play, as with my unfortunate inside edge in the last game.  But what is of more importance than luck is that game that we sometimes play in the head against that behemoth of an opposing side called self-doubt.  If one can emerge victorious against that opponent in the mind, one can emerge victorious in any game.  So, in a strange way, I am glad that we lost the series that day.  Given the relative insignificance of the setting and the loss itself, I was afforded an opportunity to learn from a ‘series’ of mistakes life lessons that no reams of text could have taught me as effectively.

Actor TS Balaiya famously remarked in Bama Vijayam, “As a student, you learn your lessons and then write your exams.  On the other hand, life is a teacher that gives you exams to test you and then teaches you lessons from it.”  Now, all I want to be is a perspicacious student, for I will never know when the next exam is around the corner.  


ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : Well done. Not sure where you inherited this habit of systematically writing a few pages. Valuable quality in a writer. In dth eend nothing serves us but the habit of humble toiling attention. I'm a big procrastinator in this aspect.

There seems to be aMr.Arab Exodus in every school :) We had a guy whom we used to call Wodambellaaam Moolai alias Dilton Doiley :)

I like the way you wove the cricket story into this and the ending is spot on !

Ram Murali said...

Thanks a lot, Ravishanker.
Well, my "habit of systematically writing a few pages" is getting more consistent because of all the kind encouragement and support that friends like you extend so kindly. I accept all the support humbly and with gratitude.

Rahini David said...

Very well written, Ram.
The cricket stuff went over my head. But it always does. :D

One experience similar to the "Ken’s priorities" anecdote happened to me. In cost accountancy, it is a well known secret that for a particular chapter, the questions are going to come from only one book and the learning last 3 problems by heart is what most of my classmates did. They always ignored the first 20 problem sums and learnt #21, #22 and #23 without understanding the sums at all. I tried to ask a few "good" students to explain and found that most could not be bothered. I realised that if I understood Problem #1 properly, Problem #2 became relatively easy and I could progressively understand the logic without anyones help.

In the exam, we go the first 3 problems rather than the last 3. The others felt cheated as if they were literally promised the last 3 sums. The first 3 sums were only 1/10th the complexity of the last 3 and so the paper was abnormally easy and not abnormally difficult. Naturally I scored much better than the others. However, that is just fluke. I usually get a lot less marks than my friends, but who cares, right? I knew I learnt more than they did. :D

Ram Murali said...

That's a GREAT story, Rahini. Thank you so much for sharing that.

"but who cares, right? I knew I learnt more than they did. :D"
--> Amen to that. And, salute. :)

I have absolutely no qualms in admitting that to get to the mindset of 'learning is of paramount importance > grades', it took me a while. Even though I got good grades as an undergrad student, I feel like my best student years were my 2 years in business school from 2007 to 2009. I had quit my job (as a s/w engineer) to go back to school since I wanted to switch careers to become a marketer. And so, I wanted to have the most immersive experience possible. So, I was quite a 24*7 student focused on learning the material and working well with my peers. As dramatic as it may sound, I think those were the most fulfilling, personality-altering years of my life.

Anu Warrier said...

For me, I think both were important - knowing the matter and the good grades. At least, that's what I aimed for. What used to bother me was the 'Oh, you have it so easy' comments. No, I did not have it easy. I worked my backside off. But I was definitely more diligent and more focused than they were. For one, I had great teachers so I wanted to learn from them. When I didn't have a good teacher, it meant that I had to learn the subject for myself because I couldn't depend on them. What made it easy for me was that unlike many of my generation, my parents didn't push me into the 'obvious' choices. They let me learn what I wanted. And therefore, I quite enjoyed college.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you for your comment, Anu. I agree with your points. And, from my own experience, I feel like whenever I have been meticulous in my preparation and passionate in my attitude, good results/grades invariably followed. It's just that when I feel like when my focus was completely on learning things well, I have found the experience that much more fulfilling.

Thank you, once again.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : Funny that you should bring up the cricket incident. We seem to be channeling each other as I was thinking of the same thing but in a different, lighter context

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thanks! You must do a cricket based cartoon sometime. Would be great if for instance, you manage to put in the purist Bishan Bedi, the perfectionist Sunil Gavaskar and the maverick MS Dhoni in one cartoon. Hopefully I've lit the thiri for you to come up with a cracker of a cartoon.

ravishanker sunderam said...

"YOU'RE HIRED" (as my script writer :):)

Ram Murali said...

Ha ha! Sure thing!