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-à-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 (

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” ( and “Iruvar” ( 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!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Sridhar Ramanujam, 33 not out" - A short story

Sridhar Ramanujam, 33 not out
A short story by Ram Murali

Sridhar Ramanujam was a splendid timer of the cricket ball, whose cover drive was executed with supple wrists and effortless grace. But there is a good chance that hardly anybody outside of Tamil Nadu first- class cricket circles knew that. The year was 1993, a good 15 years before the Indian Premier League gave budding state level players a stage to display their talent alongside the cricket world’s international stars. Back then, cricketers who played for Tamil Nadu traveled by train to play cricket, stayed in hotels that had a few stars less than five and were paid an amount that was a tiny fraction of what was paid to the players in the Indian team. These were trivial non-issues for Sridhar, for he loved the game. Simply loved the game. And, he was good at it too.  But, was he good enough?

Sridhar had just turned 33 but was as fit as he was at 23. He had played 126 first class games, made 9215 runs and had scored 15 centuries. The number of Test matches that he played was zero, a number that, in the eyes of those few who had followed his career, did absolutely no justice to his talent. Some said, “Bad luck.” Others cited the instance when he got a chance to prove himself in the Irani Trophy match (often considered a make-or-break for Test selection) in 1988 but got out in single figures, thanks to a horrible lbw decision. Regardless of what others said, Sridhar continued to be positive and hoped for a break. On October 10th, he got a phone call from Mr. Venkat, a well-wisher and mentor of his in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. Sridhar was standing in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment with his cordless phone in one hand and his wallet and car key in another.

“Good morning, Sridhar. How are you?”

“Very fine, Sir. Nisha and I are just getting ready to do some Deepavali shopping. How are you, Sir?”

“Sridhar, can I talk to you for five minutes or are you in a hurry?”

“Can you give me one minute, Sir?”

Sridhar, with one hand on the speaker of his cordless phone, whispered to his wife, “Nisha, Venkat Sir says this is important. Perumal-a vendiko (Pray to God).” As Nisha went into the prayer room after showing him thumbs up, Sridhar sat down to continue his conversation.
“Sorry, Sir. Tell me.”

“Sridhar, you have been a great talent for Tamil Nadu. As you know, I am one of your biggest fans.”

The pace of Sridhar’s heart beat increased just a tad as he cut to the chase and said hurriedly, “Sir, is it bad news?”
“Sorry, pa. I feel very bad to tell you that you have not been selected for the South Zone team for the Duleep Trophy.”

If good news sometimes takes time to sink in, bad news can give one a sinking feeling in the flash of a second. Sridhar though, was always a floater.

Sridhar closed his eyes, took a deep breath and said, “Sir, do you have any further feedback on my last season’s performance?”

“Oh Sridhar, of course you have always rendered yeoman service to Tamil Nadu. Last season, your century against Hydrebad was superb. But they’re looking to select youth for the South Zone team since they want to replace Amre before the Sri Lanka series.”

Sridhar had always wondered why Venkat always said, “they” when he gave him good or bad news. He had never asked who “they” were. This time, it was no different.

“Sir, I guess if they’ve decided that I’ve had enough chances, I can’t do much about it. Plus, as you said, the focus should be on youth, not me. Okay sir, anything else?”

“Continue to practice, Sridhar. I am sure your time will come.”

“Sir, maybe my time has come. Anyway, I promised to take Nisha to Kumaran’s (clothing store) today.  We will visit you for Deepavali to get your blessings.” “God bless you, pa.”

Mysterious are the blessings of God, thought Sridhar, as he walked into the prayer room. Nisha looked at him, stopped in the middle of her prayer and hugged him tightly. She said, “I am sorry.”  She had heard not one word of the conversation. It’s just that they had been married for eight years. Sridhar smiled at her and said, “Let’s go. Parking will be a hassle if we don’t leave now.”
That night, after dinner, Sridhar and Nisha were relaxing on the couch, watching Sun TV. He lowered the TV volume one notch and said to Nisha, “I’d like to discuss something with you.”

Nisha replied, “Sridhar, come here come here. I just felt a kick! Place your hand on my tummy.”

Sridhar placed his hand on Nisha’s tummy, eagerly awaiting the next kick. Nisha said to him, “Tell me now.”

“One minute. Let me first feel the kick!”

They looked at each other without saying anything. Sridhar felt the kick. He kissed Nisha on her forehead and said, “Nisha, I want to call it a day.”

Nisha could usually predict what Sridhar would say when he got pensive but this time, she was taken aback.

“No no no, you can’t, Sri. This is very impulsive, so unlike you. Please reconsider for my sake.”

“Nisha, I started playing cricket when I was nine. In the last 24 years, this game has meant a lot to me. But as I look ahead, I don’t see a future for me in the game. I am not getting any younger.”

“But you are super fit. Remember the catch that you took a long-on in the Goa game, Venkat Sir said that it reminded him of Madan Lal.”

“But once you are over 30, it is a barrier. I even had a conversation with Venkat Sir once about mental maturity and how I was peaking two years ago in all the facets of my game, both technical and mental. But the call never came.”

“You still enjoy the game, Sri. Don’t you think you should play till you’re at least 35?”

“Vijay Merchant once said that you should quit when people ask ‘Why?’ and not, Why not?’”

“Forget about Vijay Merchant. I really think you’re overreacting. The thing is, this is not like you.”

“No, Nisha. I did think about it this afternoon when you were taking a nap. The way I see it, I can spend more time here with you and from Jan 14th, with the papa (baby) too. I can also concentrate more at work. Last year, my work suffered quite a bit because of all the traveling.”

By now, Nisha realized that Sridhar could not be convinced otherwise. She leaned on his shoulder and said, “Hey, there’s a Revathy movie releasing on Deepavali. Can we watch it?”

Sridhar guffawed and said, “Yeah, ‘Marupadiyum.’ I heard that it’s a remake of ‘Arth.’ ‘Arth’ was very heavy. Let’s think about it later. Go to sleep now.”

At around 3:00 am, Nisha woke up to drink a glass of milk. She saw that Sridhar was still awake, going through the scrapbook in which Nisha had compiled photographs and newspaper articles on Sridhar. 

She noticed Sridhar’s eyes were a little moist. She said to him, “Get some sleep, Sri.”

He replied, “You know, I just feel bad that I never got to make an impact. I mean, at the international level. Zero impact. That’s what I feel bad about.”

Nisha, in a bid to ease the tension, said, “Make an impact on me now by getting me some milk!” Both of them broke into laughter instantly. The wound healed temporarily. But the pain remained.
The next morning, Sridhar went to the beach for his usual morning run, wearing his worn out pair of shoes. When he returned, he noticed a brand new pair of running shoes and a pair of sandals outside his apartment.

As he entered the living room, he saw his teammate Vinay and Vinay’s wife drinking tea. He said to Vinay, “Enna Pudhu Maaple (newly married), this early?”

As Nisha walked in from the kitchen with a tray of biscuits, Vinay said, “Sir, I have some good news. Venkat Sir called me yesterday to tell me that I’ve been selected for the South Zone team. I wanted to tell you this in person and get your blessings since this will be my Duleep Trophy debut.”

Sridhar put his arm around Vinay’s shoulder and said, “Congrats, da! I am so proud of you. I always tell Nisha that you will go places. See, I am right!”

Nisha shook hands with Vinay’s wife and said, “Congratulations, Vidhya! Vinay, Vidhya is your good luck charm!”

Vinay smiled bashfully and said, “Yes, akka (sister). She is! Sridhar Sir, you are a big reason why I am playing in Duleep Trophy.”

As Sridhar and Nisha sported quizzical looks at each other, Vinay continued, “I don’t know if you remember, Sir. Before my first game for Tamil Nadu two years ago, I was sitting near the pavilion rope, twiddling my thumbs. You put your arm on my shoulder and took me for a walk around the ground. I actually don’t remember much of what we spoke about but one thing I remember clearly. As we walked past the D stand, you told me that the fans who sit on the uncomfortable benches and cheer for us, those are the ones that matter, that as long as we can make them happy with our style of playing, that we must consider ourselves lucky. You told me that enjoying ourselves is the most important thing because that enjoyment is very infectious. That really…that really made a huge impact on me, Sir.”

Sridhar looked at Nisha, gave an acknowledging smile and said to Vinay, “Best of luck, Vinay. I am sure you will do well.”

By the time Vinay and his wife left the house, Sridhar’s pain had vanished for good.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Inspirations (10 of 25) – Film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

For the love of the movies

I love watching films.  I absolutely love watching films.  Nobody had to teach me that.  But there is a very fine but definite line between liking something and admiring the same thing.  What Roger Ebert – one of America’s most well-respected critics, who passed away recently – taught me through his writings was to appreciate things in a film that go beyond the superficial and make my movie-going experience a much deeper one.  Let me hasten to add that this is not about how a film critic made me watch “art films” but about how Ebert made me watch every film, regardless of its genre or commercial potential, with a keen eye.  While cinema is widely regarded as an entertainment form that needs to keep a viewer engrossed, what Ebert made me realize through his perceptive writing is that cinema is also an art form, one that is meant to be cherished and respected. 
One of the things that separated Ebert from a lot of writers was that he never bothered to write anything about film gossip or scandals.  His focus was always on what he watched on screen as well as why filmmakers did what they did.  His conversations with people like Martin Scorsese (one of Ebert’s favorite Directors) showed that despite the respect that he enjoyed with the filmmakers, he never used to that to ask any uncomfortable questions about their personal lives.  Instead, he had an admirable focus on the process of making a movie.  A case in point is Roger Ebert’s reviews of “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Cape Fear,” (1991) both directed by Scorsese.  In his critique of the former, he not only analyzed the movie but also wrote about how Scorsese’s childhood growing up in a gangster neighborhood as a sick kid made the latter fashion the shot of Ray Liotta’s (as a kid) character watch the gangsters with envy through the window of his house, eager but unable to participate in the action.  While he admired the confidence with which Scorsese made the thriller “Cape Fear" (immediately after he had made “Goodfellas”) he was also quick to point out that Scorsese moved away from his core sensibilities to make a movie where it had only glimpses of Scorsese.  In other words, Ebert was not content with even a well-crafted thriller like “Cape Fear” since its creator had not pushed the envelope as was his wont.  These kinds of nuggets made my own viewing experiences of “Goodfellas,” “Cape Fear” and many other films richer. 

Two other attributes of Ebert made me respect him even more over the years.  The first was his attitude towards the movies.  Second was his attitude towards life…and death.

Inspired by Ebert  

For a very long time, I didn’t know why I liked his reviews so much more than others.  One day, when I was writing my own review of “Anbe Sivam,” an epiphany came to me.  As I was writing my review, I realized that I had an almost respectful tone.  Kamal Hassan had made a great movie.  And, I was getting every trick out of my bag of writing skills to convey my admiration.  I had always worshipped Kamal as an actor.  In “Anbe Sivam,” he just had made me completely surrender myself to his craft and had me in a tranceAs I was writing my review, I realized that it was Ebert that made me write in a way that would convey the fact that I have – for the duration of a good movie – surrendered my senses to the filmmaker or the actor.  If you carefully notice the tone of Ebert’s reviews vis-à-vis others, you will see this difference.  Ebert’s writings will have an affectionate tone (for the good movies, that is!) and a degree of reverence that will be missing in others.

The second, more important trait, that I really admired in Ebert was his attitude towards life.  I have always been a fan of people who have fought against things that were out of their control to live life to the fullest.  In that respect, Ebert and Randy Pausch have something incredible in common – an unwavering focus on what they can control without worrying about what they can’t control.  It requires a mind with the strength of steel to battle debilitating illness and yet emerge stronger and sunnier.  Ebert, despite cancer taking away his ability to speak in the last few years of his life, was able to teach us all a thing or two about resilience and staying focused on the joys of life (He could still write lovingly of a movie that he liked.  Just read his review of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and you’ll know what I mean).  Even in the last days of his life, he demonstrated great strength in times of adversity.  To sign off from writing for a while (I wonder if he knew that he had written his last piece), he wrote a final piece titled, "Leave of Presence."  What a graceful way to sign off.  It just went to show that class is something that just came naturally to certain people.

Ebert is no longer with us.  But what he has left behind is a legacy.  A legacy of eloquently written essays on film.  But more importantly, the legacy of a life well-lived.  Thank you, Roger.  May your soul rest in peace.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Inspirations (9 of 25) - Malcolm Gladwell


There are some that inspire in a very obvious manner.  Through powerful language or forceful actions, those people can set the tunes and make you dance to them.  There are others that make you listen to music that they listen to and find your inspiration to dance!  Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of four brilliant non-fiction books, falls squarely in the latter category.  He is an inspiration of mine because he has made me mull over things that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and has made me open my eyes to things that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

When I started to develop an interest in reading non-fiction, someone told me about Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.”  I read it out of curiosity.  When I finished the book, I didn’t feel like I had read anything special.  Sure, it had some interesting insights and lateral thoughts, my favorite being the one on graffiti in the New York public transportation system (It was about how the clean-up of the graffiti had a positive effect on reducing crimes since graffiti was a symbol of disorder that had found its way to our subconscious).  But I just said to myself, “That book was cool.  I’ll move on…”  I then happened upon a review of the book wherein the reviewer compared “Tipping Point” and another book of Gladwell’s – “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” – and how the latter was more focused on the self as opposed to “Tipping Point” which set its sights on the society around us.  I instantly knew that “Blink,” if well-written, would appeal to my sensibilities a lot more than “Tipping Point” did.  Well-written, it certainly was!  

“Blink” epitomized the intellectual curiosity of Gladwell in an amazing fashion.  While people driven solely by logical, linear thought will have a tough time appreciating the brilliance of “Blink,” those who are simply curious about why they do what they do will find “Blink” to be a treasure.  The thing about the book is that it actually makes us ask more questions than give us answers.  One of my favorite parts of the book is the story of an experienced firefighter who was in a burning house but was amidst fellow firefighters who couldn’t identify the source of the fire.  In a split second, he led the team immediately out of the room he was in, realizing that the source of the fire was actually in the basement.  In the blink of an eye, he connected the heat in the room with the absence of a visible source and concluded that the fire must be emanating from the basement.  The firefighter’s experience meant that his system was so intricately wired and so finely tuned.  As I was reading this section, I kept saying to myself that I must develop expertise in at least one area – be it in my vocation or my hobbies – where I enjoy the magic that a well-wired system can weave.  As I mentioned earlier, Gladwell didn’t pontificate about any of this; instead, he just made me ponder.

If “Blink” made me look inward, “Outliers” made me look up…to not only those outliers that transcend the ordinary but also the “ordinary” – be it the people or the environmental factors - that play a huge role in the lives of the outliers.  While we have all read fairytales about successful people whose guts, positive values and strength of character are all highlighted, it was “Outliers” that made me look beyond the obvious when it comes to successful people.  Be it the focus on spouses of late bloomers who have stood by them as they bloomed into something special to the benefits that kids who belong to the affluent strata of the society have (through things such as summer camps), the book places more importance on what extraneous factors successful people were blessed with than the innate abilities that they were endowed with.  In this aspect, “Outliers” made me realize that as I set goals for myself that I respect all the means that enable me to get to my ends.  

But “Outliers” was not just a collection of success stories.  It was also about why certain values in some settings are just off the charts.  For instance, there’s a very intriguing chapter on plane crashes in Korean airlines.  This chapter contains some unforgettable transcripts of conversations between pilots and ground personnel that caution us to the pitfalls of hierarchical systems and blind subordination, things that the second-in-line officers of Korean airlines exhibited with tragic consequences.  Gladwell writes about the concept of “power distance index,” a metric that reflects the virtual “distance” that exists between superiors and subordinates.  While we chuck up this to cultural differences (for instance, the US is a low power-distance index country while some Asian countries such as Korea or India are high power distance index nations), there is a time and a place for highly obedient subordination and the cockpit of a plane is not one!  Again, I would have never associated plane crashes with anything other than bad luck, bad weather or technical failure until Gladwell pointed it out!
After having read “Outliers” and “Blink,” I looked forward to Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” with a bit of trepidation since I knew that it was going to be tough for a book to match the brilliance of those two.  While “What the Dog Saw” – a collection of his articles that have appeared over the years in “The New Yorker” – is not in the same league, it was still a very engaging read because it further highlighted to me the sheer joys of delving into minutiae.  Nothing is too insignificant to evoke Gladwell’s curiosity and the book bears sparkling testimony to that.  In the book, several questions were asked, some answered, but everything was relished with the wide eyed wonder of a kid.  What is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery?  Should plagiarism of all sorts be taboo?  What separates choking from panicking?  All these and many more are explored in this book.  

My favorite chapter in the book was the last mentioned one: what separates choking from panicking?  Gladwell’s example of choking was Jana Novotna’s snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory act against Steffi Graf in the final of Wimbledon ’93, a match that I vividly remembered watching on TV, sitting at the edge of my seat.  As I was reading this part, I was so glad that Gladwell helped me dissect the disintegration of Novotna as I witnessed her 20 years ago slide from a 4-1 lead in the final set to lose the game 4-6 to Graf.  Gladwell lucidly explains that while choking is failure of the most basic of instincts and involves thinking too much, panicking is the polar opposite – reverting to the most basic of instincts and thinking very little.  A scuba diver snatching his friend’s oxygen mask under water was the moment of “panic” that Gladwell wrote about.  Reading this chapter made me realize that I have mixed up the two terms quite often.  It also made me realize that I should be acutely aware – in times of stress or distress – whether I am choking or panicking, react accordingly and hopefully, avoid both!  Again, Gladwell didn’t say out loud, “Don’t choke or panic.  It’s bad for you!”  He just gave me the tools to help me introspect.

Looking back at my reading experiences, his books have essentially given me a plethora of small pleasures that I hope you got while reading one or more of his works.  And who knows, Gladwell might actually have made your mind go to places entirely different than mine.  That’s perfectly fine!  As I alluded to earlier, Gladwell just takes horses to uncharted waters; it’s up to them to drink in the pleasures!