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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  I swear by the stars in the sky, I’m not going to take any shit from anyone

Call it a moment of epiphany if you will. But when my editor wrote in with a note asking if I have the muscle in my head to write a piece around what is my New Year resolution, I was staring at a pitch-dark sky. It was after long that I had gotten time out to look at the stars from the terrace at my uncle’s home in Padiyoor, a village in Thrissur district of Kerala. Cut away from the mainland, after a seemingly long time, I finally had a little time to myself—that I may look at my favourite constellation, the Orion, and think of the year that had just gone by and what lies ahead.

The Orion, in my head, is now a metaphor for a lot many things. I fell in love with the constellation when in college on a zoology expedition outside Mumbai. That was when my favourite teacher from the department, Smita Krishnan, with a fondness for astronomy, started to teach me how to identify stars. The belt that forms Orion was among them.

The skies have fascinated humans across cultures. And stories of all kinds exist around each object that exists there. The one about Orion that has stayed with me is one that originates from Greek mythology where this constellation is a hunter of considerable repute.

But for various reasons, he becomes the hunted and must flee. Until, that is, he makes a comeback to seek his revenge. He gains that. But he is finally killed as well. That said, there was no taking away from what a brave creature he was in life, as he was in death. And to honour him forever, the mighty Greek god Zeus placed him in the heavens so that posterity may remember.

What if, I wondered, in my favourite version of the many fables that exists around Orion, if he weren’t as brave as he is portrayed to be? Would he have to die as mercilessly as he did? Why did he insist he prove his point with a comeback? Would Zeus still give him a place him in the heavens if he hadn’t died as he did or made a comeback? Would that make him any less ordinary? What if he were kinder to himself instead? Would that have been a braver call?

Even as these thoughts were playing on my mind while staring at the Orion, Sidin’s note hit my inbox.

I had promised myself that I’m done with New Year resolutions. Historical evidence suggested that I never stay the course. Incidentally, if you have signed up for a gym membership, promised to quit drinking, smoking, et al, as part of a resolution, the probability is that you will fail.

That said, this once, an answer to the question embedded in Sidin’s note was staring me on the face—from the heavens—no less: “Can you be kinder to yourself in the New Year and remain a hero in your own eyes?"

The thing is, I’m a sucker for personal feedback. More so since the time I took a call to move out of my comfort zone that is mainstream journalism, disrupt myself and turn entrepreneurial. Allow me to assure you, it is excruciatingly painful on mind, body and soul.

It was inevitable then that I sought feedback from well-meaning people on how am I faring. Unsolicited feedback from those concerned about me would come my way as well. I encouraged all of it and on-boarded everything in my attempts to get better.

Oftentimes, the feedback was brutal—not just from them, but from a voice in my head as well. Both the people and this voice had never imagined a day when I would disrupt myself the way I had.

It went contrary to all that I conveyed—that of a man in control, one who understands his craft, has all answers and knows where his future lies. But now stands a creature who, when pushed against the wall, can sometimes fumble for answers and has come around to admit to it in as many words.

It was only inevitable then that everyone feel both concerned and agitated. At the end of the day, this creature flogs himself for his inability to see the future or articulate his vision as clearly as he could in the past. In some way, it was a dilemma Orion the great hunter faced when he became the hunted:

• Does Orion now flee, angered, recoup and come back stronger? If he wins, victory, glory and a place in the heavens will come. But death is inevitable.

• Or does Orion ignore everyone, do whatever it is he wants to do, and be kind to himself? Of one thing he can be certain. Whether he meets with victory or failure, liberty, is his for the taking. But nobody, him included, can tell whether he will ever become the great hunter he once was.

What is Orion to do? The braver call, and the road less travelled and taken, is the latter. I think it more adventurous as well.

But when thought through deeply, why did I feel edgy a few times last year? When I took a call to disrupt and choose a new path for myself, I sought feedback from those I trust and wish me well. I was listening in to all of them and soaking in their advice. But in hindsight, I was being unkind to myself. Allow me to put that into perspective.

The consensus view was that I had pushed myself way outside my comfort zone. I now operate in ambiguous territory at a point in life when people consolidate gains. And like I said earlier, at times, I didn’t have answers to many questions thrown at me.

“But why do you need to know all the answers?" asked my compatriots at Founding Fuel, led by Indrajit Gupta and Kavi Arasu. “You demonstrated you got spunk when you set out on unchartered waters. When you begin journeys like these, you start with questions. Answers emerge when the journey begins. That is how entrepreneurs operate."

“But leaders I know of seem to have all the answers," I sputtered in a fit of exasperation. “And everybody in my personal ecosystem thinks I ought to have the answers."

Kavi, whom I have spoken of in earlier dispatches, put things into some more perspective for me. “You can’t be a feedback junkie. In much the same way that delivering feedback is an art, receiving feedback is one too," he said. That intrigued me and I asked him to explain.

An article I stumbled across in the Harvard Business Review later captured the sum and substance of his position. “There’s one debilitating behaviour that most of us fall victim to with great regularity: Listening to critical voices in our heads. Whether they originate from external criticism or our own fears and doubts, these negative voices tell us we are not good enough, kind enough or productive enough. Research shows that echoing negative thoughts inside our heads increases our chances of depression, isolates us from others and inhibits us from pursuing goals."

Instead, Kavi argued, and Indrajit reinforced later, I have got to examine feedback critically as well. All feedback, however well-intentioned it may be, comes from a perspective—that of the giver. So, all feedback ought to be stress-tested.

• Why did the person say what was said and offered as feedback?

• How much of you and your circumstances are known to the person who offered you the feedback?

• Does the person understand your domain and your style?

• What kind of understanding does he have about the kind of individual you are?

• What kind of a frame was the person offering you the feedback in?

• Is the feedback consistent from multiple sources?

• If consistent, why? If inconsistent, what makes this person’s feedback different?

The sum and substance of what they had on offer was this:

• All feedback, if well-intentioned, ought to be examined thoroughly and dispassionately.

• It ought to be weighed against your realities they may be unaware of or have little sight on.

When looked at from this perspective, it finally came to this. I have been too harsh on myself. I demand too much out of me. Nobody knows me better than I do. I want to be better than the best.

So, I seek feedback. While feedback is a good thing to seek, how to receive it is as important. But more important are how to interpret it, when to stop seeking it and believing in myself.

There is an apocryphal tale familiar to most people in business and attributed to Henry Ford. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." That is why, it seems, he went on to create the Ford Motor Company and build cars.

Nothing could be further than the truth than that. It is something a course on design thinking put into perspective for me.

In Ford’s time, one of the biggest concerns urban planners had on their minds was the exploding population of horses. New York City alone needed stables to house more than 100,000 of these creatures and the 1,200 tonnes of horseshit they dumped each day.

Solutions were available then. Karl Benz in Germany had already built the modern car as early as 1885. But Benz didn’t know how to milk it most.

Ford was listening in to what people were saying; and what they weren’t, as well. He was thinking for himself. He tinkered around for 20-odd years until he perfected assembly lines and mass production and rolled out the Model T in 1908. It transformed America and the rest of the world.

Ford wasn’t concerned about cars. He had more important things to do. Like clear horseshit from the road. Nobody was willing to tell him that. Because they didn’t know that’s what they wanted.

So, as resolutions go for the year, mine is a simple one. As an American would say: “I ain’t takin’ no horseshit from no one this time ’round."

I don’t think I can be kinder to myself than that. And Orion will approve.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at

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Updated: 01 Jan 2017, 12:25 AM IST
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