How do some people cultivate a mind that is uniquely theirs and not shaped in the mould of others? Why do the voices of some count while some are lost? How do some people live miserably in the present and in an imagined future on the back of a glorious past? Is it because these are creatures who haven’t learnt the art of letting go gracefully? Are these the ones that stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their job is done?
These were some of the questions that emerged on the back of a conversation between Niranjan Rajadhaykasha, one of my earliest mentors and part of the leadership team at Mint, Rajrishi Singhal, a former colleague who has donned many hats including that of a policy wonk, journalist and banker, and Indrajit Gupta, my co-founder at Founding Fuel.
The backdrop for this conversation was multiple narratives from business and politics—both historical and contemporary. Even as the conversation was getting more engaging by the minute, I kept wondering, what kind of muscle will I eventually be left with when my time comes? Will I have the grace to hand the baton over and move on that I may conform to the moral order of the universe?
As things are, we are witnesses to leaders from the past across multiple domains reluctant to let go of the reins. Business is a domain I am most familiar with because that is what I have reported and written about for most of my working life. That is why the tragic story of an inheritor son of an iconic Indian business house comes to mind. The patriarch is past his prime. For a long time, the son was assured and he assumed that he was being prepped to take over the baton of the business from his father—now in his late 70s. In a private conversation, he told me he finds it exasperating his old man refuses to let go.
Instead, after his Ivy league education, mandatory apprenticeship, and many years of waiting in the wings later, he finds himself staring at a subservient CEO in charge and appointed by his father who plays what tune the bard wants. To the world outside, it sounds like the music of a professional. But the truth is, the old man continues to call the shots. “How much more duplicitous can it get when your father promises you something, does something else, and still has the world eating out of his hands?” the son asked me in exasperation. It was said in a weak moment. Because to the world outside, what is portrayed is the image of a tightly knit, happy family led by a benevolent patriarch.
Then there are those who claim to have given up and moved on—but come back furious at the so-called “erosion of values” in the organizations they claim to have institutionalized. The most recent storm in the public eye now is that of the differences between Infosys co-founder N.R, Narayana Murthy and its current CEO Vishal Sikka. It has been under much scrutiny since last year.
It is entirely incidental that at the time of writing this dispatch, The Times of India has reported there is more acrimony, the founding team is terribly unhappy and that they intend to sell holdings in the company. Even as this dispatch is being readied, the story has been denied by spokespersons at Infosys.
In the past, Nandan Nilekani and Kris Gopalakrishnan, two of Infosys's other founders, have told me explicitly they have moved on. I continue to stay engaged with them on what is it that keeps them occupied. The IT firm, they insist, is part of their history and is not something they want to expend their energies talking about.
As for Narayana Murthy, his assertions are in the public domain and many believe it is a clash of cultures between Murthy and Sikka. I could not connect with Sikka to seek his views to meet this deadline. I have never met him and my interaction with Murthy was in a distant past. Multiple versions of the story exist and I don’t know where the truth lies.
If pushed to the wall though, and on the back of whatever it is I have heard from friends in Bengaluru tuned into the ecosystem, I currently belong to a camp that believes Murthy’s outbursts were uncalled for and he didn’t let go with grace. “If he doesn’t trust his board to have taken the right decision in hiring Sikka, why does he trust them with the entity he helped to build?” they ask. But like I said, I don’t know, and made no attempt to reach out to Murthy either—save reading the public documents.
Talking of boards, our conversation that evening touched on that as a theme too and the hypocrisy in it. Take some so-called institutions the average Indian looks up to, particularly in banking and some of the largest conglomerates as cases in point. They claim people who occupy the chairs on their board are independent members to protect the interests of the shareholders and the larger interests of the company. But when scrutinized closely, these are people who have found ways to band together for over two decades. How?
When you stay together for 20 years, is it possible your board may have morphed into what may resemble an all-boys club that goes out golfing every weekend? How can those outside of their cabal be assured they really are “independent”? How do those whose interests they claim to protect know they haven’t crossed any line and gotten to be buddies instead? And why is it that they get all riled when these questions are asked?
Between Niranjan, Rajrishi and Indrajit, who often engage in conversations with senior leaders and statesmen in the public domain, they could think up many names whom they reckon are standing on precipices like these. I don’t intend to get into politics because it is a minefield, and while I have had multiple conversations with people in the domain, my understanding of the domain is limited. But be assured, the dynamics there are incredibly more complex than that in business.
That said, the entire point around which our conversation was veering to was that there comes a time in every professional’s life when it is time to cede ground. With grace. And move on. To other things. When they do that, how do some of them stay as motivated and entrepreneurial as they were when they started their first enterprise? How do they continue to remain alive through life? Because the fact is, in their second avatar, even the best of the kind described above find it incredibly difficult. Why? Where does the conflict emerge?
We couldn’t complete our conversation because we were running out of time and had to head to the venue where the Mumbai Press Club was handing out the much-anticipated Red Ink Awards for excellence in journalism. All of us promised to pick the threads of the conversation later.
The questions though stayed embedded in the mind and refused to go away. Not for anything else, but because in listening to the issues they raised, I figured this dispatch has been in the works for many months now. I do not intend to digress from the questions raised earlier. So, stay with me for a while. What follows may sound entirely disconnected to what I had originally started with. But it isn’t.
A few questions emerge while practising how to meditate, because it is accompanied by silence. Now, silence can be peaceful when it chooses to. But it can be brutal and merciless as well. Over the last few months, it has consistently thrown some hard questions at me—all in the third person.
• What is the most important thing to you—right now?
• How do you feel—right now?
• What is your dream goal? What will your eulogy read like?
• Where is your True North (or moral compass, if you will)?
• How will you measure your self-worth (as opposed to net worth)?
• Is your happiness independent of your goal?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. I think I am reasonably sure about my True North. Answers to other questions differ every day.
I thought I could hear some pointers to what kind of answers ought to emerge when the Red Ink Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism was given to Vinod Dua—a name most Indians of my generation are familiar with. His short and succinct, self-deprecatory acceptance speech to the fraternity present there in large numbers was met with a much-deserved standing ovation. While those in Delhi may be familiar with him, it was the first time I had seen him in person.
While all of what he said continues to stay embedded in the head, one thought stayed long after the evening was over. Everybody needs to meet their basic needs. Some may want to get rich. Nothing wrong with that. But, he said, the issue is, how rich do you want to get?
By way of example, Dua suggested, if Rs1,000 is what may meet your basic needs, Rs10,000 makes you a very rich man. But if you crave more than what you need to be a very rich man, it is time to pause and ask: Why?
Indeed. Why would anybody want exponentially more than what can be consumed? When you think about it even for a moment, what can money possibly get you? It arouses different emotions in different people. My view on the question of money and why we do what we do is something I have articulated earlier. I continue to maintain my stated position.
Life has its own way of adjusting to the monies on hand. The more money you have, the more your wants. The less you have, the fewer your wants. The real call to take is: “What do you need” versus “What do you want”. When I whittle the list down, what I really need in material terms is very little. Making a transition to simpler living requires embracing Picasso’s philosophy: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. What I really want is meaning and purpose.”
My interpretation of Dua’s short and succinct acceptance speech was that while a statement of intent is one thing, staying tuned to your True North, maintaining the ability to measure your self-worth and constantly attempting to stay happy, independent of the outcomes, is what makes life worth living.
In trying to figure how far have I progressed, where I stand and whether I am on the path to grace of the kind I suggested I would want to have when my time comes, the silence of the mornings I spend time with asked some more questions.
Whom do you want to be like?
It isn’t an easy question to answer. I may want to emulate Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln or heck even Jesus the Christ for that matter. But when looked at from a very practical perspective, the most important things to me right now are getting my cash flows in order, ensuring invectives aren’t directed against me, and staying undistracted by trends on social media.
But at the end of the day, there is no taking away that in figuring cash flows and staying away from invectives, there is no joy. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable and does nothing to contribute to my longer-term dream goal of finding purpose and happiness, independent of the outcomes.
So, whom do I to emulate? For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been told I ought to emulate somebody. But when thought about, is that true? Do I necessarily need to emulate somebody? In fact, why should I? What is wrong with being me? Why ought I not choose the road less travelled? Much thought later, my tortured answer is this:
• I do not want to emulate anyone. I want to be my own man. In my own image.
• I do not want to be weighed down by anybody’s opinion because it is the lowest form of knowledge. I want to cultivate my own after having done the hard work.
• That means I need to think clearly. This is where rubber meets the road. When the roads diverge, do I choose the one that leads to valuations? Or do I take the one to a life well lived? That is a call only I can take.
But I have only one life to live, I had better make it count, and be doubly sure the calls I take are the right ones. Times like these, it makes sense to turn to wisdom. It arrives from the unlikeliest of places. This time around, it was in the form of a text message from Arun Maira, who served in the erstwhile Planning Commission and is somebody whom I hold in the highest of personal esteem for his wisdom.
“Have you read Chapter 2 in the Bhagavad Gita and If by Ruydyard Kipling?” the message asked.
Those were the only reinforcements I needed to seek what road I ought to take, reinforce what I thought I heard Dua said, and compile all of what the sound of silence around me was trying to suggest.
I make no claim to be an expert on the scriptures. But this translation of two verses from Chapter 2 in the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna addresses an anguished Arjuna, particularly appeals to me.
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.”
“Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.”
Allow me attempt interpret my understanding of what this means to me.
Assume for a moment you have eyes set on running a marathon. You go all out and train for one. You are obsessed to the exclusion of everything else, but run the marathon. So you wake up at 4.00am in the morning; you train; your tolerance for any ambiguity that may come in the way of your training will be low; all your waking hours are dictated by the outcome of this event; your routine and your life depend on it; and when the day arrives; you run; you complete it; you’re happy.
Now what? Or for some unfortunate reason, you don’t make it past the finish line. What happens?
Unhappiness is inevitable. Your happiness or unhappiness was wedded to the outcome of the event. What happens after the event is done with? It is inevitable then that emptiness will follow.
This is not to suggest that goals are not important—but only to drive home that it is pertinent we cannot be wedded to the goal or the outcome. What, instead, if you were not training for the marathon? What if you thought of yourself as an athlete? What if you were running for the joy of running? Like a child would run? Because there is much joy to be found in running.
Not with the intent of making it past a certain finish line, but to run because there is fun and fluidity in it. Crossing the finish line may then just be another episode in the journey—much like an injury would be. Now, you are no longer wedded to the outcome.
I can’t think of too many people—me included—who have it in them to complete a task on hand when there are no visible outcomes. How much more ironic can it get than this in a country that gave the world one of the finest philosophical treatise that is the Bhagavad Gita?
If any more perspective be needed, there is Kipling’s If to turn to.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
I guess wisdom of this kind is what confers the grace to let go, the humility to stay humble and the freedom to seek happiness in the moment.
Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
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