I’m almost done with reading a fascinating book, Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist, journalist and lawyer. The book has compelled me to rethink my assumptions about the former prime minister. More on Rao some another day. For now, I’ll stay away from the light this book shines on his political astuteness and focus instead on his passion for learning.

In the tumultuous months after Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi won the popular mandate to take over as prime minister, he wanted the “old guard" out—Rao included. Gandhi had his trusted aides around him and made his contempt for Rao apparent. Rao was 63 years old then, 23 years older than the new prime minister.

Computers were just a novelty then—even in the US where researchers were at the forefront pounding away at all of the possibilities a beast like this could unleash. The prime minister wanted it in India and thought old fogies like Rao would impede the induction of new technologies.

What the newly minted Gandhi didn’t know was Rao’s voracious appetite for learning which, among other things, meant he could speak ten languages fluently, from chaste Urdu and Sanskrit to speeches in Marathi.

That is why it didn’t take too long before Rao got his son to send him a computer from the US on which he learnt the intricacies of the machine and eventually went on to write code in Basic, Cobol and UNIX. I’m not sure Gandhi could do that ever. It was only a matter of time then before Gandhi had to concede ground and Rao became indispensable.

The question then is, what is it that makes some people like Rao learn so much better than us regular folks? Is it because their IQ is higher? Or is it because they think it a discipline that needs to be nurtured?

In trying to understand that better, I stumbled across a very interesting post on Medium by Michael Simmons around an idea called the five-hour rule. The diagram below summarizes the sum and substance of his observations over the years, a lot of which has been gleaned from the writing of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US.

Apparently, every weekday, Franklin would take an hour off to read voraciously on pretty much anything on everything he could put his hands on. “Each time that Franklin took time out of his busy day to follow his five-hour rule and spend at least an hour learning, he accomplished less on that day. However, in the long run, it was arguably the best investment of his time he could have made," Simmons writes.

His essay led me to a pointer on yet another book on the theme: The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin, acclaimed chess prodigy, martial arts expert and author. Add his book to your list of must reads because, for me, three learnings emerged out of it. There are many more. But as they say, to each his own.

Lesson No. 1: To win, you must first lose

Nobody likes to lose. But when looked at from the right lens, losses have enormous benefits. Narasimha Rao’s journey as the man who would become prime minister of the world’s second most populous nation was beset with losses, deep reflections, and learnings. To most people though, losses are seen as frustrations—not opportunities to learn.

In Waitzkin’s case, he started competing in chess tournaments for adults when he was ten. Most kids would have given up. Not him. He figured it wasn’t his lack of skill, it was just matches against adults lasted twice as long as that against those his age. At age 10 his brain didn’t have enough ammunition to hold up against them. But he chose to look at those losses as an investment for the future. The muscles in his head were getting stretched to the limits possible that few of his counterparts could eventually match when they came of age.

When thought of deeply, much the same thing happened with Rao. Posterity will remember him as the one man who could manage under the shadow of the dynastic Gandhi family with the kind of dexterity he did.

Moral? Seek out opponents better than you and invest in losses.

Lesson No. 2: Prepare to feel vulnerable

There are those born with innate talent. But it can only take you so far. Take Srinvasa Ramanujan, the mathematical genius whose died way too early at 32. Most history textbooks have hushed it to tuberculosis. But was it really? Contemporary investigations indicate it was an unwillingness to adapt.

From our living memories, think of the hugely talented Nafisa Ali Joseph and Divya Bharti. Did these women have to die as young as they did?

But vulnerability is natural to learning. It is daunting. And it manifests itself physically as well. Like Ramanujan felt so acutely. Joseph and Bharti had so much to travel; so much to learn; so long to go. But what is common to all of these names is that everybody went into a downward spiral for reasons of their own making. Who knows what they might have achieved if they had lived past their vulnerabilities?

Ramanujan’s contribution to understanding of game theory is being completely acknowledged only now and his notebooks continue to remain under scrutiny for the insights he had.

Narasimha Rao on the other hand knew how to avoid this vicious cycle. Each time vulnerability struck, he’d step back, into obscurity if need be, pause and come back only when he thought the time and place right.

Lesson No. 3: Embrace disruption

This happens often to me. Just when I’ve switched my phone off so that I will not be disturbed and locked my room, something comes up at home that demands the wife’s immediate attention. If it frazzles her, she doesn’t think twice about knocking on my door, or tearing it down if need be, to get my attention. That a fracas ensues is a given. But does it have to, asks Waitznik.

He learnt something the hard way that I’d like to cultivate as well in spite of it sounding horribly tough. His point is, we ought to be able to function under less-than-ideal circumstances. When we react to any disruption with anger, it means we are in a “hard zone". Enter a “soft zone" instead.

By way of example, he talks of the time when he couldn’t focus on a chess match because a song was playing at the back of his mind. Bear in mind, there was no music playing in the background, but at the back of his mind and he couldn’t shake it off. It ended up with him being unable to bring in the focus he needed to win the match.

Much introspection later, he asked of himself, what if he were in the soft zone? When in a hard zone, you want the world to cooperate with us and our minds. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In a soft zone though, you just take in the punches, accept the circumstances for what they are, and continue to function. But it takes deep learning and cultivating resilience.

With that understanding embedded in his psyche, he started to practise playing chess to the sound of music at home. But this time around, he didn’t try to block the sounds out. Instead, he let the music waft into his head. It took a while. But his mind adapted and over time nothing could interrupt him.

And just then, what that Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote fell into place: Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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