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Photo: ThinkStock

Life Hacks | The Gladiators

Those who stay focused at their jobs are the ones who work at keeping their body in shape

The other day, Rajat Chauhan claimed something that came across as ludicrous. Entrepreneurs and CEOs ought to have the ability to run at 16km per hour if they intend to stay at the top. It was difficult to dismiss the claim outright because his credentials are impeccable—sports physician of repute, race director at La Ultra (www.laultra.in), among the world’s cruelest runs (as described by participants), speaker at international symposiums, and a Mint columnist.

To drive his point home, he wrote an interesting piece on Founding Fuel (www.foundingfuel.com). “Each one of you reading this, had to run to be born—or rather had to swim like hell to get to life. Each of you as a sperm was a leader, or an entrepreneur if you will, who believed you were the chosen from among 300 million other sperms. But that self-belief only became reality because you moved like you never did before… When a man ejaculates, sperm travels at approximately 16km to the hour. How many of us have managed to move unassisted at that speed after we were born?" The sum and substance of his argument was that all high achievers across the world are exercise fanatics as well.

Because he is an outlier who thinks running 333km through the Himalayas in 72 hours is par for the course, I turned to K. Ramkumar, executive director at ICICI Bank Ltd. He is responsible for the group’s human resource function as well. Superbly fit and somebody who swears by sport, I thought—for lack of a better word—Ram could offer a more grounded perspective than the maniacal one Chauhan offers.

Now, Ramkumar is the kind of person who has an incredibly tough job. The calls he takes hold the potential to decide what direction the lives of a little over 95,000 people the bank employs can take. His neck is on the block pretty much every day because, god forbid, if any of his calls go awry, the government, media, the families of 95,000-odd people, and his counterparts will haul him over the coals. Technically, he is on call 24/7. When you are part of a team that runs the country’s largest private sector bank, you never know when a crisis can strike—and it strikes often.

That said, he carves 90 minutes every day to engage in physical activity. On weekends, he takes more time out to spend either running or walking at least 15km. He likes to write, but thinks he is incompetent at it. So he consciously takes time off to engage with the craft and religiously maintains a weekly blog (www.theotherview.in) where the world has seen him slip, fall and evolve for almost two years now.

He is close to the family and “it is important my wife and children see me as a hero". So no matter what, he switches off from work at the end of the day. Even if that makes him boorish to others on the board, he holds his ground. He is loved and loathed in equal measure. Be that as it may, he is good at what he does and is incredibly productive. How does he do it?

“Why single me out?" he asks. “Everybody at ICICI does it. And everybody makes the time to work out." By way of examples he points out to chief executive Chanda Kochhar, who he thinks is incredibly focused. Much like Kochhar, he speaks of Lalita Gupte, chairperson of ICICI Venture, and Chinmay Sengupta, who heads ICICI Foundation. Kochhar and Gupte, who live and breathe pressure-cooker situations every day, are conscious of how fit they are. Sengupta is a long-distance runner.

“All of them keep punishing routines. My hypothesis is that high achievement orientation is common to all of us," says Ramkumar.

That doesn’t sound like an adequate answer. I can think of dozens of professionals, including me, who are highly motivated but do not have the time to do everything Ramkumar and his counterparts do. Work consumes pretty much all of our waking lives to the exclusion of everything else. What is it that makes me and my ilk different from Ramkumar and his contemporaries? When probed, Ramkumar comes up with a few interesting answers.

In his mind, the likes of him are gladiators. “There is a myth that in a gladiatorial combat, you have to land the last punch. Truth is, you simply have to be the last man standing after everybody has been battered equally and nobody can land another punch." By way of explanation, he offers that in his career, he has come across people who are obnoxiously more talented than him. But when it comes to the last mile, after everybody has put in much the same effort, it boils down to who continues to stand—not who is the most competent.

Gladiators who have lost rationalize it by using circumstances and an unfair pitch as crutches. But experience, says Ramkumar, has taught him, it is inevitably the fitter one who keeps standing. This shows in little ways. For instance, at marathon meetings where make-or-break decisions are taken and go on for as long as 16 hours, it boils down to whose mind can stay on the task at hand. Those who stay focused are the ones who work at keeping their body in shape.

But staying fit isn’t easy. To make sure he’s out on his run, walk or at the gym every day, he calls it a night at 11pm. He refuses to take red-eye flights because they hold the risk of coming in the way of his 90-minute regimen that starts at dawn. That is why in his head, Ramkumar has to justify even the number of hours he sleeps. “When you’re sleeping, you’re doing nothing. You’re dead. But if I tell myself I need seven-and-a-half hours to achieve peak performance during my waking hours, then sleep is a tool I have to invest in."

Pretty much every day, he reminds himself of his mortality as well. Given his current lifestyle, Ramkumar reckons he’ll live to be 80. In his book, he measures the years in hours. At his age (55 years), he reckons he’s got 10,000 days of life left in him. “How can I best compress the most of life into these days?" he asks rhetorically.

“That is why I begin everything on time and end on time. My social life is restricted only to those who matter. Everything is prioritized, including what tasks I participate in, the people I meet, how much time I spend with them and so on and so forth. The clock is ticking and I am aware of that. It pisses people off because I come across as rigid and selfish. But so be it. I have to do what is best for me." When viewed from this perspective, everything else then ought to fit into a system that works with clockwork precision. So much so that it can sound excruciatingly monotonous.

Ramkumar disagrees. “There are three parts to life," he begins. “First, how healthy do you feel? Second, what is the quality of your thinking? Third, how emotionally balanced are you?"

By way of explanation, he offers, if you’re mired in nostalgia, as is endemic to unhealthy people, you can’t think right. Emotional imbalances follow because you cannot deal with pressure, either professional or personal. To get all of these in place, you need the right kind of endorphins in the system. These are released only when you work out. “But the unhealthy don’t know that. If you’ve been unhealthy all your life, how will you know what it is to feel healthy?" he asks me, as the both of us stare uncomfortably at my large frame.

Which is Chauhan’s point as well. We were born because we fought hard for it. The fittest sperms made it to the world. We have forgotten all about that. Which is also why, right after getting out of Ramkumar’s office, the first thing I did was call my former tennis coach Karthick Raghuvaran and told him I’m signing up with him right away.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel Publishing (www.foundingfuel.com), a media and education platform for entrepreneurs.

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