Sunday, March 27, 2016

A personal touch in the professional setting

Malcolm Gladwell, with his book “Outliers”, did me a lot of good.  As the title suggests, the book was about outliers in various walks of life.  One of the themes of the book was about how we must sometimes look beyond the obvious when it comes to successful people.  By shifting a bit of the focus onto the people who have stood by those outliers as they bloomed into something special, the book placed more importance on the people that these uber-successful people were blessed with rather than just the innate abilities that they were endowed with.  I cannot claim to be a special, dazzling talent in any aspect of my life like the kind of people that Gladwell wrote about.  But here's the thing.  As I grow older and as I strive to evolve as a person and a professional, I see that Gladwell certainly has a point.  As I think of every little success that I have had in my professional life and every little moment of joy in my personal life, I feel like I have someone to thank.  (Since I am just coming off of a rather heavy post on my grandpa, I have chosen to focus on the professional setting here.*)

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If there's one element of the professional setting where I consider myself extremely lucky, it has to be the 'teachers' that I have worked for.  I am not in academia so, I am not referring to those teachers in academic settings.  But I have seen in my dozen years as a working professional that so many colleagues of mine have all been excellent teachers.  They teach not through speeches or lectures but rather by doing just the right things with effortless ease.  They have, time and again, showed me how to be human and empathetic, yet never losing sight of having their teams focus on contributing efficiently and effectively.  

I am sure that what drives a person to succeed will vary widely depending on the nature of the individual, their strengths, weaknesses and even idiosyncrasies.  But there is quite a bit of research that shows how some very basic humane traits have resulted in exemplary behavior and increased productivity.  

I had read a wonderful book titled "The Power of Habit" written by Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter.  One of the chapters in the book went on to detail an experiment that was conducted by Mark Muraven, a Professor of Psychology.  The participants in the experiment were divided into two groups.  Both groups had a group of warm, freshly baked cookies in front of them and were asked to sit in a room and not eat them for the 5-minute duration of the experiment.  The first group was told rather curtly something along the lines of, “You must not eat the cookies.”  The second group was given not only more polite instructions but were also made to feel like they had control of the experiment, that they were active partners in this experiment, whose feedback was valued.  They were told things like, “If you have suggestions on how to improve this experiment, we would value your inputs.”

 The ones in the second group who felt more autonomy and ownership were a lot more successful in resisting the cookies for the duration of the experiment without complaining.  After five minutes, all participants (in both groups) were asked to take a simple test where they would see a series of numbers pop up on the screen and had to hit the space bar when they saw a 6 followed by a 4.  (It is supposedly a standard test to measure willpower.)  The ones in the first group (who were treated rudely and were not given a sense of purpose like the second group) performed rather poorly in this test.  The reason was that they had no willpower left after the 5 minutes of resisting the cookies post the rude instructions.  Whereas the ones in the second group (who were made to feel a sense of autonomy and ownership) were a lot more successful in acing this test since their willpower resources had not been exhausted.  In essence, the autonomy that they felt they had enabled them to exercise self-control to not only resist the cookies but also take the test later and do both successfully. 

 Reading this section of the book made me feel a lot of gratitude towards some of the wonderful people that I have worked for and worked with, for giving me the kind of autonomy and sense of purpose that make us want to work hard.  I emphasize this because there will be times in our careers when we have to go above and beyond the routine to put in longer hours, stretch ourselves and step out of our comfort zone.  And, the more we feel like we want to work harder, the easier it is for us to actually push ourselves.  And, as was the case with the cookie experiment, the best of managers understand that the sense of belonging and autonomy that they foster will go a long way towards ensuring that their subordinates take the initiative and maximize their potential.  And then, when it is our turn to be managers, we just have to pay it forward.  After all, that is the ultimate tribute that we can pay to those that helped us develop professionally as well as personally.  

And, one of the other things that I have realized is that the ways in which people can help us can be seemingly simple but the impact that it can have on a person can be tremendous.  To give you an example, a few years ago, I had to make a presentation one morning.  It was scheduled for 9:30 am.  My colleague Toni who saw me a few minutes before the meeting said, “Ram, are you doing okay?  You don’t seem to be your normal self.”  Let’s flash forward to 11:00 am.  I had just finished my presentation.  It was one of my best presentations at work and I received some terrific feedback from the people that were in attendance.  But let’s go back in time to see what really contributed to the success of that presentation.  It was 6:30 am.  My wife, who was pregnant at the time, decided to work from home that day because she wasn’t feeling well.  So, she sent an e-mail to her manager stating that she’d like to work from home that day.  Minutes later, she got a nasty response from her boss in which he said that if my wife wanted to work from home, she should’ve informed him in advance.  My wife was very upset because of how inconsiderate her boss was.  Even though I suggested that she stay back, she said, “No, I don’t feel good about this.  I guess I’ll go to work.”  So, she came with me in the car, dropped me at work and headed off to her workplace.  As I went into my office, my mind was filled with thoughts about my pregnant wife who was feeling so disconsolate.  That is the state of mind that Toni saw me in.  So, when she perceptively asked me if I was feeling okay, I said, “Let me share with you what just happened.”  I vented for a couple of minutes and said, “Actually, I feel better now.”  She smiled and said, “Let’s go!”  I went into the conference room and the talk turned out very well.  Now, think about this.  Was my success that day only because of my power point slides and my presentation?  Not really.  The seemingly small investment that Toni made in me made a huge difference.  She cared.  She didn’t expect anything in return.  She just wanted me to maximize my potential.  Whenever I think about that day, I recollect with gratitude the kind of positive impact that Toni's pep talk had on me.  It is one of many instances at my workplace where I have had someone's thoughtful words or meaningful gestures lift my spirits or give me a new perspective.  

As I look ahead to the rest of my career where I will hopefully have the privilege to work with more people from various backgrounds, I keep telling myself that I must never lose sight of the fact that even if I work for for-profit organizations, the biggest investments that I make must be in people.  I want to ensure that I introspect about people as much as I interact with them.  Because, the more you look inward, the more you understand the people around you.  And, the more you look at the people around you, the better you understand yourself.  


* - I have re-purposed some sections of a write-up of mine that I wrote on LinkedIn Pulse.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ramanujam Thatha – the incomplete chapter of my life?

My maternal grandfather was not supposed to die this way.  Or, at least it did not feel fair at all.  It was on Sunday, March 20, 1994.  He was 61 years old.  I was three months away from entering my teens.  He was a happy, contented man who played out his entire career since graduation at the Reserve Bank of India until he had retired in 1990.  He had this thing for longevity I thought – employed at one employer for over 35 years.  He met with his one best friend every day for nearly 50 years.  (They were best friends since middle school.)  He was married to a wonderful woman for nearly 40 years.  He absolutely adored his two daughters – was a mature, steadying influence for his older daughter (my Mom) and was a pampering, doting dad to my Chithi, his kadaikutty.  And alas, thanks to a freak car accident that occurred 22 years ago, I have been bereft ever since of not only the longevity of relationship that others enjoyed but also the kind of affection, sense of security, stability and just that feeling that he was there for you.  But given his sunny disposition and uncomplaining personality, I would not do justice to him with this tribute if I didn’t sound more positive.  So, let me try harder.

In my write up on Dr. Sheena Iyengar, I had captured the line that she wrote me when she signed a copy of her book for me – “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  It’s a lovely, succinct line that captures the benefit of focusing on just a small set of core values and the resultant choices that lend a certain sense of purpose and define a person’s character.  And this focus allows one to fully relish the joy of living which can be derived from everyday minutiae.  That is exactly how my Thatha lived his life.  He had a few core traits such as undemonstrative (yet undeniable) love towards his family, firm loyalty towards his best friend, unwavering honesty and financial prudence.  These were the things about which he was fiercely protective and inflexible in many ways.  But he developed a set of comforting routines that marked his laidback lifestyle.  And, he used these predictable rhythms to ensure that he had the space and time to enjoy the everyday minutiae that I wrote about.  For instance, he liked his job at RBI.  But to him, it was a way to bring food to the table.  He was more interested in having the actual food at the table with his family.  An image of his that I remember vividly is that of him helping himself to a small kinni (cup) of steaming hot potato curry off the stove before eating his dinner just to enjoy the spice of the curry by itself.  He equally enjoyed his idlis at Rayar’s café as he did a sambar vada at Savera.  I have had the pleasure of his company at both sorts of places and I can safely say that what mattered to him was having a place to enjoy good food and hearty laughs.  In fact, he brought in a people element to everything he did, be it movie nights, long car drives or walks at the Marina beach.  As they say, the biggest gift that you can give your loved ones is your time.  And, he ensured that all his loved ones were the recipients of his largesse. 

One of the defining relationships of his life was his lifelong friendship with Mr. A. Sivasailam (who passed away in 2011).  Sivasailam Mama was a wealthy industrialist.  But the gap in social status was an invisible element of their friendship.  Sivasailam Mama was an extremely simple man who had absolutely no airs or pretensions.  He exuded class in the truest, deepest sense of the word, treating my Thatha and all of us in the family with tremendous affection.  And, my Thatha was too contented a man to ever have any serious thoughts about differences in financial status.  As I mentioned earlier, they met up every day until my Thatha died.  It was a charmingly predictable routine- Mama would come home to pick up my Thatha and they would drive to the Marina for a walk there.   They would then go to his place for a light snack and he would drop my Thatha back home.  They were completely in sync with each other’s thoughts, never having any serious conflicts whatsoever.   Essentially, the story of their friendship was one of those too-good-to-be-true legends…except that it was true - every sentiment, every laugh and every tear.  (In fact the shattered expression on Mama’s face at the hospital when my Thatha passed away is an even more difficult sight for me to forget than my grandma’s own cries of anguish.  One had lost his best mate, the other her soul mate.)

22 years have passed by since that fateful Sunday morning.  Thatha went to the boat club for a walk.  He had popped in to the house of Mallika Aunty (Sivasailam Mama’s daughter) to say hello.  And, he decided to test drive their new car by himself.  Without realizing that one of the controls was already on, he pressed on the gas and rammed into the wall at considerable speed.  His spleen got ruptured and by the time we got to Kaliappa Hospital, he was fading away.  It was not my habit to hug him every time I left the house.  But that morning, I don’t know why but before leaving the house, I stepped out of the car, sprinted upstairs and went to his room (where he was putting his shoes on, ahead of his walk) to give him a hug.  That was the last time ever I saw him alive.  Someone that was so full of life was now lying on the hospital bed lifeless.  One of the liveliest chapters of my life felt like it was ended abruptly with the last page of the chapter being torn to shreds by a cruel quirk of fate.  Or, so I thought until I had to go back to the same hospital three years later.

In 1997, one of my dearest friends Harish was undergoing an operation at the same hospital.  When he mentioned the name of the hospital, a shiver ran down my spine.  I felt extremely queasy about going to that place again.  I was in a bit of a foul mood that day and sensing something was brewing in my mind, my Mom asked me about it.  I opened up to her about how I felt completely uncomfortable going back to that hospital.  She gave me a valuable piece of advice that really transformed my attitude towards my Thatha’s sudden passing away.  She told me that if I truly idolized my grandpa, the best tribute that I could pay him would be to try and live life the way he did, to be the kind of friend he was, to invest in meaningful relationships and to give people the gift of pure emotions, unsullied by negativity or rancor.  Following her advice, while I admit to taking gingerly steps into the hospital to visit my friend, just the sheer joy of talking to him ahead of the surgery, cracking jokes and wishing him well gave me a strangely soothing kind of closure.  To this day, Harish remains one of my very best friends. 

From that day on, I have continued to make sincere attempts at living life the way my Thatha did.  Of course, I am acutely aware of my flaws as a person and I know that I have a long, long way to go to emulate my Thatha.  I don’t know if I ever will be as great a friend or a husband or a father that he was.  But I am trying continually and I derive immense satisfaction from that.  Whenever I painstakingly make tea for anyone that visits my home, I think of how the taste and aroma of the tea might matter.  But what matters more is the courtesy and warmth with which I serve it.  Here, I think of the tea lover that my grandpa was but how much more he loved the friend that he shared his tea with.  When I drive my car, I know that the car’s speed, look and feel and comfort all matter.  But what matters even more is that I can enjoy a drive with my family while listening to Ilayaraja’s music.  Here, I think of the car enthusiast that my Thatha was but how much more enthusiastic he was when he took us all for a long ride in his new Maruti 1000. 

I may have never made a cup of tea for him or taken him for a ride in my car.  But as I try to capture the spirit of my Thatha in my own everyday minutiae, what felt like a full stop on March 20, 1994 feels more like ellipses now…

Maybe the ‘chapter’ ended abruptly that day but the themes of the book were firmly established there. 

Miss you a lot, Thatha.  I am sure you miss me too, wherever you are.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

So, that's what 'modern' is all about?

I never thought that my indiscipline with respect to uploading songs to my iPod would lead me to a thought that I would be unable to shake off for a few weeks.  I have this seemingly bad habit of creating playlists titled “Assorted #” and including all my recently downloaded songs in there.  And, a month ago, en route to work, I happened to listen to two songs that were not just from different eras but they sounded like they were from two different civilizations.

The first one is “Mouname Paarvaiyal,” that exquisite MSV composition from “Kodi Malar.”  I looked up wikipedia to see that it was released in 1966, that is a half a century ago.  It's a scintillating melody with some beautiful lyrics.  No surprises there – it was written by Kannadasan and composed by MSV for a Sridhar film.  But what struck me was the sheer respect shown towards the female character in the song.  The kind of terms - “alli kodiye” and “muthu charame” - that the lyricist uses to address the woman in the song (who I presume is mute, from the lyrics; I have not seen this film) are par for the course for a Tamil song from 50 years ago.  But what makes this song truly special even beyond the beauty of the thamizh is the kind of decency and genteel attitude that a male has towards a woman.  This was the kind of sensibility that an urbane director like Sridhar had at that time that enabled him to work with his music director and lyricist duo to create such a breathtaking expression of tender feelings towards a loved one.

Now, the song that I listened to right after this made me feel like I was not driving a car but a time machine.  That song was “Clubbula Mubbula” by Hip Hop Aadhi.  Trust me, I am not going to launch into a 'pazhaya paadala vs. pudhiya paadala' debate.  Of course, “Mouname...” sounds sweet and “Clubbula...” sounds crude and crass.  Of course, “Clubbula...” has an irresistibly catchy tune and is probably the kind of song that a teenager listens to on his way to college. (Hey, a 34-year old that you know listened to it en route to work!)  What I want to capture here is the germ of a thought and a question that these songs (when played back to back) planted in my mind.  And that is, what does it mean to be truly modern?  It is a question that has kept gnawing at me for some reason.

After much rumination, here's the thought that gave me closure to this nagging question.  What modern is not is an excuse to do something that doesn't look or sound better than the status quo of a previous generation.  For instance, go ahead and get sozzled to your heart's content.  Just don't tell your teetotaler Dad that he is 'old fashioned' and cite globalization and westernization as an excuse. Go ahead and sing songs like “Clubbula Mubbula,” making fun of girls.  Even back it up with arguments like, 'If girls have the freedom to drink in real life, we have the freedom to make fun of that on screen.'  Just stop dismissing old songs because the dance movements look stilted now.  That was the kind of grammar that existed in the 60s.  At the very least, the songs were by and large tasteful in thought and their use of thamizh.  Instead of using 'modern' as a throwaway term, let's really pressure test our notions of modern to see whether we are really a better evolved society, treating our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.

I recently witnessed a series of distasteful comments against women in an online forum.  I tried in vain to offer some unsolicited advice but was admonished by an anonymous commenter for not understanding that this is how the internet is.  Fair enough.  But what was like a blow to the head with a polo mallet* was a comment (in that forum) by a 76-year old who said that the comments brought her unpleasant memories of a train journey from several decades ago when she was trying to discreetly nurse her child and was subject to some nasty comments by perverted onlookers.  That's a real shame.  A disgrace.  When I read that comment, I was just ashamed at the ways in which we use things that are modern (like technology) to do something that makes a person go back four to five decades in time to tap into some dormant, unpleasant memories.

Of course, this is not to say that people in the 60s that listened to MSV's songs were saintly.  And that we in 2016 are disreputable villains.  After all, the train journey that the septuagenarian was talking about was from an earlier generation.  After all, it was in 2015 that people in Tamil Nadu used social media and other means to lend a helping hand to those in need when floods ravaged the state.  Now, that is taking something – technology – that was not available to this extent to a previous generation and using that to spread awareness and generosity of spirit.  These are the kind of things that could entitle this generation to say, 'This is the kind of stuff that we youngsters are all about.'  See the difference between these relief workers and those unsavory online comments that I referenced above?  Something truly modern requires someone working hard to shake the status quo.  Modern is a way of thinking and a way of acting that makes an earlier generation ask questions of themselves, about how they could have done certain things differently at that time.  It is not something that makes us hang our heads in shame in front of a 76-year old.

PS: * - I finally get to use my favorite Woody Allen's patented term in a blog post!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Inspirations (19 of 25) - Javagal Srinath, former cricketer

“‘A cricketer and a gentleman’ – that’s what his autobiography must be called,” an acquaintance of mine mentioned when I asked him what he thought of Javagal Srinath.  As we chatted, we began to talk less about how much he achieved and more about how much more he could have achieved in a different setting with more nurturing.  In none of his post-retirement interviews (he retired from international cricket in 2003) have I seen Srinath express any serious regrets about his career.  And, I don't even think that he was an underachiever at all - how about 236 Test wickets and 315 ODI wickets?  This is more about how Srinath was the type of person who needed a perceptive mentor and a more supportive system.  What is truly praiseworthy and inspiring is that he worked within the limitations of the self as well as the system that he was in and yet, carved a niche for himself, donning the India cap as an express fast bowler and as a gentlemanly sportsman for 12 years.

I recently read an illuminating interview of Srinath by Subash Jayaraman in cricinfo1. When asked about the fact that it took a few years into his career for him to hone the art of pitching it up (rather than sticking to short of a length), Srinath replied, “Had there been that technology earlier in my career, it would have been a different story altogether. That is the way life is, I suppose. There were bowlers who were bowling without technology and they were getting wickets - that is a different issue. But everybody learns in a different way.” More than any of the tech details he mentions, what caught my eye was that last line about learning.  “Everybody learns in a different way.”  This line caught my attention because I have read stories about how the experienced, thoughtful Imran Khan molded raw but talented youngsters like Waqar Younis & Wasim Akram into great match winners.  Having grown up watching Srinath put in his heart and soul into his performances (with varied results over time, of course) and now looking back at the trajectory of his career, I sincerely believe that a perceptive mentor – a mentor, not just a bowling coach, a sports psychologist or any of those fancy terms that coaching personnel use - would have made a significant difference to his growth.

I don't know Srinath on a personal level. But something tells me that he would have been a delightful protégé to have for any willing mentor.  He would have worked hard in the nets, putting in his best efforts to incorporate his mentor's suggestions to tread a growth curve with a mix of genuine curiosity, hard work and innate humility.  

While Kapil Dev (who was India’s lead paceman when Srinath made his debut in 1991) was indeed one of India's great all-rounders, I don't think many would call him a selfless mentor.  That lack of passing on the baton hurt Srinath quite a bit.  Akram recounted a story of how Imran coached him on bowling yorkers after he saw Akram get smashed in a prior game.  And, we all knew what a devastating death-over bowler Akram turned into.2   The ardent Srinath fan in me felt a little wistful thinking of how Srinath never had one of those Imrans.  The situations that Akram and Srinath found themselves in in their early 20s were different.  By the late 80s, while Imran was more of a batsman (following his career-threatening injuries), Kapil was chasing his world record when Srinath came into the team.  As a result, Imran was the thinker to Akram's executer.  Whereas, Srinath was carrying drinks as a 12th man for home tests since India could not afford to play three fast bowlers for the dust bowls that were prepared in the early 90s. (Kapil and Manoj were more the batting all-rounders in those bat-thwack-spin-win home Tests of the early 90s.)

Occasionally, Srinath’s critics mistook his impeccable on-field behavior for a lack of killer instinct. They sometimes wrote that he may have been more successful had he been more aggressive and looked more aggressive.  To me, it may be true but it’s only a miniscule part of the truth.  He didn't have to glare at batsmen and mouth expletives in order to get wickets.  He just needed better strategies and he was essentially left to himself to figure out those strategies.  That it took time was only natural, given the introverted nature that he was known for.

Having followed cricket actively throughout the duration of his career, it was rather touching to see Srinath, in the twilight of his career, mentor younger bowlers like Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra.  I am sure Srinath would not have wanted the talents of a Zaheer to go waste without proper direction.  I have heard numerous tales of Srinath's generosity and his thorough, organized manner of working with youngsters, bringing in his engineer's intellect and his utter lack of pretentiousness.  While Srinath may have never won a World Cup winner's medal, he played an important role in laying the foundations of the careers of Zaheer and other pace bowlers who eventually helped take India to victory in the 2011 World Cup.  As Randy Pausch once said of his legacy - “Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don't get to step foot in it. That's OK.”

The way in which Srinath really inspires me is to realize the importance of being proactive and finding those people who can guide you gently when you find yourself lacking in direction.  Sometimes, I even think that every youngster, despite their field of work, should identify mentors like the Srinath of the early 2000s in order to not end up like the Srinath of the early 90s.  Because in every walk of life, there are only a select few that are considered a ‘natural’, be it sales or writing or sports.  The overwhelming majority (I consider myself in this category, for sure) have to work extra hard to achieve significant things and in order to do so, they have to introspect to identify the areas where they need guidance and then go get that guidance from more seasoned veterans.  For the ones that maybe retiring by nature (like Srinath was), it may be a step out of their comfort zone to reach out for help. But those small steps could be absolutely necessary to improve their career by leaps.  In that respect, I am grateful to all my gurus in academia and my professional life who have been generous with their time and their thoughts.

I don't know if Srinath will ever pen an autobiography as suggested by my acquaintance. But I see his cricketing career akin to a book whose foreword and prologue did no justice to the author's talent.  But by learning several important lessons through the colorful chapters of life, the author certainly knew how to script a meaningful epilogue.  So, in essence, his autobiography would really be the story of a mentor who was never a protégé in the first place.  And for that, I salute him.