Talent in Management and sports

This article is published in the September’2008 issue of the magazine The Management Compass

The fear factor

What is stopping Indian sportsmen from emulating the chinese and US success story?

China had been going all out to put in an impressive performance at the Beijing Olympics. China’s leaders have had a long tradition of using sports to boost national pride. For china, a significant victory at Beijing would enhance its potential superpower status. Its vast multibillion sports machine has only one goal in mind — grooming Olympic champions. At the time of writing this piece, they seem to be succeeding in their mission; currently, China is at the top with 35 Golds, 13 silver and 13 bronze (on August 18).

The heartening thing about the Beijing Olympics is that India too finally managed to produce an Individual Olympic champion, 108 years after the Olympics restarted, Abhinav Bindra received the first individual gold medal in shooting in the 10ms Air rifle category from a strong field of 122 shooters from nearly 100 countries. His impressive performance got him the kind of adulation that is normally reserved for cricket and Bollywood stars in India. Apart from being feted for his achievements both by the President and the Prime Minister, the manner in which the newspapers and news channels covered him made him a national hero and an eligible bachelor overnight. However, considering that it was the first individual gold medal for a nation of a billion plus population in such a long time, everything said in his praise would seem like an understatement.

Bindra mentioned in one of his interviews that our country’s sports administration needs to be brushed up in a way that winning such medals should be more a rule than the exception. How does one achieve that? The Mittal Steel Trust (MCT), with a corpus of $10 million set up by steel baron Laxmi Mittal to support talented Olympic aspirants, is a handsome initiative. Bindra was one of the beneficiaries of Mittal’s largesse. The Olympic gold quest by India’s sporting legends Geet sethi and Prakash Padukone backed by business funds is another such initiative. Apollo Tyres Mission hopes to create a Grand Slam champion in India in Tennis by 2018 and NIIT Mind Champion Academy has taken chess to 4,000 schools across India. While all these attempts are laudable and one hopes that other business houses follow their footsteps, will that be enough?

The China model

One needs to have look at the way China develops its champions. After 1959, when Rong Guotuan made history as China’s first world Table Tennis champion, to maintain ping pong supremacy, coaches fanned out across the countryside looking for kindergartners with quick reflexes and superior hand-eye co-ordination. In their table tennis school, kids train for four hours everyday in the morning and three times a week in the evening with academic classes in between. Many kids see their parents for only a couple of weeks each year. That maybe a little far fetched but a proactive talent spotting process has to be there in place to ensure that talent is spotted at a very young age and groomed on a continuous basis.

Retirement blues

That is one aspect of talent management in sports. There are deeper issues involved. Who shall take care of the sportsmen after they retire, is a prime worry that prevents many a talented sportsman from opting for a sports career or devote full time to it with a single minded focus.

The China Sports Daily estimates that 80 per cent of the world’s retired athletes are plagued by poverty, unemployment or chronic health problems, resulting from overtraining. India’s record is hardly impressive. Norman Gilbert Pritchard, who got silver medals for India for 200m sprint and hurdles in 1900 and was the first man to score a hat-trick in Indian football, died a physical and mental wreck in New York in 1929. Freestyle wrestler KD Jadhav won a bronze for India in the 57kg bantamweight category but got nothing on his return, apart from felicitation. He was killed in a road accident in 1988, for which his widow received a paltry for Rs 25,000. He was posthumously awarded the Arjuna Award in 2001. This is peanuts for people who win medals for the country. Hockey Wizard Dhyan Chand’s son Ashok Kumar had himself been in the Indian hockey team but he mentioned once that since Dhyan Chand did not get anything out of hockey, he did not want any of his sons to play after his playing days got over. Though Flying Sikh Milkha Singh’s son Jeev is now an established golfer, the father did not exactly approve of the son’s choice of career in sports because of his own experience of disappointment with the returns on his achievement.

Sportsmen from other disciplines may face problems of a different kind. Tennis ace Vijay Amritraj revealed in his autobiography that his worst nightmare after retirement would be to be forced in a business not of his liking just to support his family. India’s former coach John Wright had to actually live through that nightmare. In his book Indian Summers ,Wright explains his experience in the corporate world after retiring as a test cricketer, before he became coach for Kent and then, India. In his own words, “Working at Fletchers gave me a crash course on everyday reality, which for many people boils down to earning a living doing something they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do. I had gone from doing something I had a passion for to doing something completely different, which, with the best will in the world, I wasn’t passionate about.” Kapil Dev’s autobiography reveals how a senior cricketer like Chandu Borde was humiliated routinely by the board as he was dependent on them for a job.

Right choices

Fortunately, Bindra seems to have earned a fair amount of prize money from various sources. He is a rich man’s son but otherwise, would it suffice to sustain him for a lifetime? Who will take care of the responsibilities on retirement. Maybe other corporate houses would come forward to absorb them just the way some of them absorb cricketers. Bindra’s spectacular achievement is a good opportunity to look at talent management from a different perspective on how excellence can be achieved both in sports and other spheres. The book Welcome to the Talent Wars by Bruce Tulgan and Now, discover your strengths by Marcus Buckinhgam offer insights into talent management, which one can apply from sports to corporate management and vice- versa.

Both Tuglan and Buckingham have emphasised the importance of knowing your one’s specific niche and planning accordingly. Buckingham has given the example of super golfer Tiger Woods and English soccer star David Beckham. Tiger woods knew that his bunker play was poor. Once he made sure that it reached acceptable levels, he focused totally on his dominant strength, his swing. Explaining how English soccer star David Beckham hit a 35 yard shot to beat Equador 1-0, Buckingham says that he had become so overwhelmingly good at bending long range free kicks into the net that this one strength virtually defined his entire role. He calls this rarefied specialisation and advises emulating it in the management world. Buckingham has written extensively on how silly it is to correct a weakness at the cost of building a strength. Whether before or after retirement, or in sports or other disciplines, nothing can be truer and if one discovers one’s niche at a young age, chances of success improve considerably.

Buckingham has also said that it is better to aim for well-rounded organisations with people complimenting each other’s weaknesses. The percentage of great all rounders to total number of cricketers is extremely low and even if one were to possess that kind of versatility, one can only focus at one area at a time. The core of talent management is to know your niche and build on it.

Phelps phenomenon

There will of course be honorable exceptions. Swimming superstar Michael Phelps is one. By winning eight gold medals, he conquered Mark Spitz’ record of seven gold medals and with the highest number of individual gold medals, became the greatest Olympian of all times. He is not great just because he got eight — he has achieved single handedly what India could achieve in 108 years. Phelps’ total tally — 16 golds and 2 bronzes — towers over India’s total tally in 108 years. Phelps has 14 golds against India’s nine. Without his contribution, the US gold tally would be halved.
Phelps was diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in school but as his talent was spotted early, he focused only on that. I had read in one write- up how some ADHD children have a very high IQ but only in one or a few areas. Such people cannot afford to be in the wrong profession. If not handled properly, they can make a nuisance of themselves and even take to crime. Phelps has shown what is possible when they are in their prime, which is possible only with the right kind of talent management.
When people are in their right roles, they represent the strength, health and wealth of a nation. A person who could have been a zero is a superhero and what is a nation without its heroes?

If some superstars like the players mentioned above cannot afford not to know their sub niche within their main professions, can anyone afford to be in wrong profession at all?

Former seven times world Billiards champion Geet Sethi answers that both for sports and management. In his book Success v/s Joy, he states that after exposure to the game for only a few months, he got addicted to billiards at the age of 13. Though Sethi focused on billiards, his friend Sunil Aggarwal did the opposite. Though he shared his passion for billiards, he focused on his IIM and IIT and achieved the exalted social status as the managing director of a company. He declared that a feeling of inadequacy and failure dogged him continuously, which was primarily because of lack of achievement in what he considered to be his true passion — the billiards table. Considering that such well-qualified man can talk like this, can sportsmen or anybody for that matter afford to be in the wrong occupation?

Talent and passion

Former football superstar Pele, considered by many to be the greatest ever football player ever answers that when he says, “I felt a strange calmness… a kind of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically.” Pele also said,
“Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string.” Which reminds one of former management leader Charles Schwab’s assertion, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm”. Talent management in this perspective is nothing but locating and redirecting talent in the right areas, whether is management or in sports. Both our World cup winning captains, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kapil Dev are prime examples. Both were ardent footballers but switched to cricket because both discovered by chance that they could hit the ball very hard while trying another activity (batting) in another sport (Cricket).

Doesn’t that imply that training matters more than education in spotting and grooming talent? This is because talent is actually activity centric unless one is involved in research. According to Buckingham, “Whatever our job happens to be, it comprises several activities. Some invigorate us, some leave us neutral, some deplete us, bore us or drain us. There cannot a perfect job we love but the jobs can be sculpted around activities which strengthen us.” Buckingham has asserted in his book that 8 out of 10 people not using their strengths actually shows tremendous scope for talent management. In sports career switching is relatively easier as it is more activity centric.

A word of caution here. According to Buckingham, interest without adequate ability can also be dicey. Giving the example of Basketball superstar Michael Jordan, he says that even if he had not spent countless hours in the Gym, he would have still been a better player than most of us.. But without those hours in the Gym, he would not have become the star he was”. Talent management implies a healthy balance of both talent and passion. Buckingham has also explained what a waste of time and money it is to send people for training for talents that they do not possess. According to him, while skills and knowledge can be learnt, Talents are inborn and cannot.

Management lessons

Tuglan offers some valuable insights while comparing education with training. He says “General Electric alone — with its stunning college campus at New York — spends $500 a year on training and education, 10 times more than the total annual tuition paid by Harvard’s MBA student body in a typical year. Nobody can be stubborn and insist that the only way to train people is for the long haul, mimicking the obsolete pedagogy of yesteryear. Corporate training and distance learning will eventually wipe out many, if not most of the graduate business programmes in existence today.”

One of the chapters in Tuglan’s book is Turn Managers into Coaches. According to him, personal coaching is much more effective in getting the best out of people. Tuglan says “If it takes your organization months on end of years to get people up to speed into meaningful roles, you have a serious problem in today’s short term environment. Neither individuals or organizations that employ them have any more time for long term knowledge acquisition. It is no longer sufficient for anybody to receive their education up front through formal schooling and expect that education to last them very long. You have to identify quickly what a person is capable of, choose the right role for that person, teach that person exactly what he needs to know to play that role and then require that he gives it all. Depending upon his, there should ba a multiplicity of opportunity for you.” He gives the examples of US Marines on how in 11 weeks, they can get a person ready. Explaining a training programme for a new trainee, an example of one company was given with a training programme from week to week, where the individual is assessed at the end of every month. According to the company “Every day is meant to be like an MBA crash course because we have hired you to run our business”

Such emphasis on training rather than formal education may allay some of the fears that sportsmen have about what to do after retirement. I had once come across the businessman father of a promising Tennis player who was wary of going all the way because of the risks that it entailed. When one reads of the difficulties of career switching at sites like http://www.careerswitchers.org or books like Working Identity even in the western world, one can hardly blame him. That apart, career switching can sometimes bring out very promising talent — Amitabh Bachchan is also a case of lateral career transition who came up more because of hands-on coaching rather than formal education in acting.
The word education comes from the latin word educere which implies to bring out what is already in, which perhaps can be done better in some cases by hands-on coaching.

Following the philosophy of “The best are worth accommodating”, Tuglan states that in the current scenario, companies have to bend backwards to accommodate aspirations of the best talent. The book mainly talks of how the most talented people in management are now thinking like free agents (like professional athletes and actors) and how it is not possible to achieve excellence without catering to their specific needs, whether it is a three way workweek or sticking to one location instead of shifting them around etc. It talks of fluid and flexible staffing: “Learn to employ people wherever, whenever and however they are willing… Where and when people work matters much less in the new economy than what people actually do and how they do it… In the new economy, career customization will be the norm, not the exception”.

If these are the new standards of talent management, we can hardly afford to mistreat our sports or other superstars before or after retirement. The people who make the country proud can hardly be treated as the rest of the crowd.

True to his name

The word Abhinav means brand and uniquely new and one must say that with his achievement, he has lived up to his name. Though old is gold in a certain context, we should ensure that his gold never becomes old and continuously inspires us to better performance. The name of the first citizen of the country, the President of India, is Pratibha or talent, which should symbolise our conduct. Bindra has set a healthy precedent. Following letter and spirit, President and precedent, it is better if we pull up our socks in talent management to live up to the new Olympic spirit everywhere. Otherwise the saying Chak de India may end up meaning more like chuck (leave Olympic aspirations) de India.. And instead of our players being on song, “Hum honge Kamyaab” will remain what it is — just a song.
———————–End of Published Article——————————–
Though perhaps not evident in the way the article has been edited, much of Bindra’s success has come from some of the factors mentioned in the article- discovering his passion(talent) at a young age, having the flexibility to devote to it with a single minded focus, having no worries of life after the sport etc. Competency based systems which have a people orientation rather than a task orientation are more likely to detect talent at a young age.

That apart the chapters of Tuglan’s books is clearly indicative of a sports model for training which can be applied in management:-

Talent is the show,
Staff the work, not the jobs,
Pay for performance and nothing else
Turn Managers into coaches

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Emotional Inteliigence and Life purpose

This article was published in the June’2008 issue of the magazine Management Compass. The magazine version pdf file is eintelligence-and-life-purpose-june-08

When work’s delight

It’s better to do what we love doing, even if rewards are greater elsewhere

In addition to my previous article on concentration that appeared in the May issue which made it to the Times Wellness Book , another article titled Emotional intelligence and life purpose I had written for the Times of India also made it to the Times Wellness Book. This is the elaborate version of that article:

“There was once a salesman, who because of his predisposition to be authoritative hated his job, as he had to be continually subservient to customers, which revolted against his primary nature. After he opted for a career switch and became a policeman, all his complaints vanished because in the new occupation, he was calling the shots.

“Research has revealed that our emotions, more than anything else, make us tired and cause serious health problems. Daniel Goleman, in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, says ‘Great work starts with great feeling.’

“Psychologists use the word “temperament” to describe the emotional aspect, which can be a reflection of the person’s personality. Type A personalities by their very nature strive for achievement and personal recognition, and are aggressive, hasty, impatient, explosive and loud in speech. They should be careful because they are prone to stress and heart disease.”

Since the title and thrust of the article is emotional intelligence and life purpose, it is preferable to focus on this part. In my personal opinion, if the person concerned is struggling hard with himself like the example of the salesman above, any further analysis or expecting emotional intelligence out of that person is useless unless one gets to the root of the problem and solves that first, which in this example was to a drastic change in profession. Emotional intelligence and life’s purpose inevitably form a virtuous circle in the sense that if you are engaged in your life purpose for a majority of waking hours, you are in a better position to be emotionally intelligent, which in turn can rebound and result in high quality work or fulfillment of your life purpose.

Daniel Goleman’s book is virtually considered a Bible on emotional intelligence. His views on the same are worth reflecting:-

“Except for the financially desperate, people do not work for money alone.. What also fuels their passion for work is a larger sense of purpose or passion. Given the opportunity, people gravitate to what gives them meaning, to what engages to their fullest commitment, talent, energy and skill. That can mean changing jobs to get a better fit with what matters to us”

I once came across a site called careerspice.com, where they had actually listed the options in the order of passion, strengths and skills. Though earlier, a list of passions, skills and strengths were listed on the website in that order, they have made the passion module more specific while maintaining the overall order, which only goes to show the wisdom of Mr Goleman’s words. In the previous decades, strengths and skills used to matter more. Another site worth mentioning in this context is passioncatalyst.comwhich again makes passion the main focus.

Though flow is a term introduced by psychologist and social scientist Mihaly Czikszentimihalyi who described it as being totally absorbed in whatever one is doing at the moment, Goleman’s comments on it in the context of management are worth noting:-

“Flow blossoms when our skills are fully engaged… by work that stretches us in new and challenging ways. The challenge absorbs us so much that we lose ourselves in our work, becoming so totally concentrated that we may feel out of time. In this state, we seem to handle everything effortlessly, nimbly adapting to shifting demands. Flow itself is a pleasure. Flow is the ultimate motivator. Activities we love draw us in because we get into flow as we pursue them. When we work in flow, the motivation is built in — work is a delight in itself. Though there are rewards in terms of salaries, bonuses and stock options , the most powerful motivators are internal, not external. It feels better to do what we have passion for, even if the rewards are greater elsewhere.”

Though the above contents of the book Working with Emotional Intelligence were first published in 1998, even now, 10 years later, one keeps bumping into new sites which reveal the wisdom of those words. One recent site that I came across is careershifters.org, a UK-centric site, where more than 15 career coaches have come together to inspire and facilitate lateral career shifts. The very fact that so many people have come together on one platform indicates that it is a serious problem in that country.

There is one more thing that Daniel Goleman has said which deserves a mention:

“By midlife, there are many many corporate executives and lawyers pulling down seven-figure salaries who wish instead that they were doing social work or running a restaurant. People who feel that their skills are not used well on the job or who feel that their work is repetitive and boring run a higher risk of heart disease than those who feel that their best skills are expressed in their work.”

Goleman’s above extract brings to mind an American consultant, Craig Nathanson of the vocationalcoach.com/ who specialises in helping the kind of people that Goleman has mentioned in his article, who maybe facing a midlife crisis in their early Forties. The irony in all this is that despite it being such a problem in the western world, despite their comprehensive recruitment systems, one wonders how bad the situation in India is. When one talks to HR consultants on lateral career transition or mid- life crisis, one gets an indifference response.. It is almost as if the problem does not exist.

The book The Art of Happiness at Work, which Howard Cutler has co-written along with the Dalai Lama, mentions several other psychologists who have done research on the subject, which again reflects the magnitude of the problem. As for the work being repetitive and boring, even if one is in the profession of one’s liking, some of it is inevitable. Professor Debashis Chatterjee quotes Mother Teresa in his book Break Free, “When you do small work with great love, your work will automatically become great.” Chatterjee advises ‘watch as you work’ and says that to be fully alive is to be fully functional in mind, body and spirit. The real motivation is to be fully alive and to be fully absorbed in the work. This is a kind of voluntary forced flow and even if the work does not become great, one can at least feel great if one is able to do this successfully. One has to face a reality that a lot of work is repetitive and either one tries to do them with full attention or makes games out of them as some management books suggest.

The Dalai Lama also suggests that if one thinks one’s work is boring and repetitive, one should see things in a wider perspective and see how one’s work benefits a lot of other people. This shall enable one to pursue one’s work as a calling if it is not so. If it is, all this can be managed but if one feels completely out of place in the major activity itself, this can be an additional burden. It is like that expression in Hindi- aate me namak ya namak me aata. It is the matter of a sense of proportion. The Dalai Lama says that certain kinds of fruits have a bit of sourness in them and the sweetness cannot be separated from the sourness as they are bound to be mixed. Therefore, one has to brace oneself for repetitive tasks.

As for the state of flow, the Dalai Lama indicated that while it may be possible to achieve flow by meditation and engaging in the work of one’s liking, one should remember that it is not possible to remain in that state throughout the day. One can improve upon one’s emotional intelligence in this context if one tries to apply what all is written above.

India seems to be on the threshold of an economic expansion but if countries, which have achieved material prosperity, are talking about non-materialistic fulfilment to such a degree, one wonders what is in store for us, especially considering the articles that keep appearing from time to time on how executives face stress and burnout. The Dalai Lama pointed out that a career orientation with primary focus on promotions, job titles and designations can be an acute source of misery. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman while asserting that personal satisfaction is rapidly gaining on financial rewards as a determining factor for choice of work, says, “Our economy is rapidly changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy” which is actually a paradigm shift in emotional intelligence.

With achievement of 9 per cent growth rate achieved in the past few years and bright prospects envisaged for the future, the Indian economy is becoming a money economy all right but whether it becomes a satisfaction or happiness economy is the moot point.
Since prevention is better than cure, we have a lot to learn from the developed western world. When Japan prospered economically, it also faced a lot of social problems. The Japanese term Karoshi, implying death from overwork, and Pokuri Byo, meaning sudden death, are a reflection of that time. They actually indicate a deeper malaise — a distorted emotional intelligence; Goleman has indicated above how people not fully engaged in work are more prone to heart disease and it is a well-known fact that the impact of negative emotions are manifested in the body in one form or another.

With our size and population, we cannot afford to miss the wood for the trees. One wonders what is in store in the long run. Will the collective emotional intelligence of a country known for its spiritual legacy go hand in hand with economic progress? Will Individuals flow and India glow, or a truly prosperous economic boom turn out to be some kind of doom ?

Concentrate on concentrating

This article was published in the May’2008 issue of the magazine Management compass

Vagaries of mind

It’s concentration that helps you achieve your goal

I had written seven articles in The Times of India in the year 2006, out of which two made it to the Times Wellness Book. Out of the two, one is on concentration:-
“Indian children are exposed to how Arjuna was asked to focus on the eye as a target for his arrow, as an exercise in concentration. Ralph Waldo Emerson has said ‘Concentration is the secret of success in politics, in war, in all management of human affairs.’
One way of determining what your purpose in life is to try and engage in an activity in which you completely lose awareness of time and space because you are fully concentrated on it. That would be the activity in which you are in your element. Though it can be described as an intense concentration, Osho has elevated it to the level of meditation. He even goes to say that when you are happy doing whatever you are doing, you are automatically meditative. Meditation is a function of happiness and not the other way around. In the children’s context, if their concentration is monitored proactively, it could give an indication of their life’s purpose…

Emerson’s statement has a different connotation as well. It is a well- known fact in Yoga that the power of concentration is the power of the human mind. People are able to perform miraculous feats with the power of concentration. In this context, if you are caught in the wrong profession, a good power of concentration can go a long way in mitigating the misery. One can pass by with a reasonable degree of efficiency if the general level of concentration is high…

So either one is in the right profession (spontaneous concentration) or the general level of concentration is high. At least one of the two should be strong for you to be adept at what you are doing. Therefore we realise the need and importance of developing concentration not only for children, but for our ownselves too.”

The above article was based on a passage that I had come across in an article on meditation: “Many people cannot concentrate on their work because their minds keep straying. Others keep worrying about their pet obsessions. These are the vagaries of the mind which prevent you from doing a good job at any given time. At the other end of the spectrum, you find people daydreaming a chain of colourful thoughts. So deeply engrossed are they that they lose awareness of what is going around them.” I had this problem and I was looking at it from only one perspective of what I could not do. Later, when the “colourful thoughts” made me a writer and a poet, I realised that my mind was concentrated on them which is why I could not concentrate on the jobs. That is perhaps the reason why creative people do not like nine to five jobs; they are simply not cut out for them.

The most well-known enlightened man in the history of mankind, Buddha had this to say in this context “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” Some of the great artists of this world have described absorption in their work as a kind of orgasmic pleasure. Pablo Picasso said, “It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction”. Whatever be the form of creativity, nothing can replace the artistic satisfaction that one experiences on being able to complete a creative task when one gets completely absorbed in it and achieves a state of total concentration by transcending thought. Some years ago, in an interview, filmstar Shah Rukh Khan had said, “When I stand in front of the camera, I feel as if I am making love to my audience.”

Creative people are known for being emotional, sensitive and mood swings. Einstein had once said, “All great discoveries come from people whose feelings run ahead of their thinking”. From a writer’s/ poets perspective, some of the best creative ideas come when the mind is given a free run. The mind can be explained in terms of centrifugal (stronger at periphery than centre) and centripetal ( logical and centred — stronger at centre) forces and the mind with a centrifugal predisposition has creative
tendencies.

Ayurveda talks of Vata, Pitta and Kapha people. A Vata (air) predominating person will have emotional tendencies towards fear and anxiety. They are very creative and imaginative, make good artists, poets, inventors and writers or have divergent attention concentrated in ideas. They are indecisive, changeable, excitable, moody and solitary people. Kapha minds are the exact opposite — grounded and centred and have convergent attention focused in implementation.

One definition of creativity is to reveal a new synergy between two seemingly disparate ideas or a rearrangement of the old. One is supposed to drench oneself and the subconscious with all the facts one can muster with full concentration and when the mind is calm and relaxed, ideas incubate from the subconscious to correlate, combine, associate and categorise in different kinds of synthesis. No wonder some of the most important discoveries from science have come in a relaxed state of mind when the concerned individuals have been bathing, walking or even shaving.

Apart from getting creative ideas in a relaxed, concentration is facilitated when the mind is in a creative state and vice-versa. The Bhagvad Gita says, “For he who has no tranquility there is no concentration.” The other extreme is also equally true. Psychiatrists use occupational therapy as one of the means to treat people who have been through severe trauma by making them do interesting activities in which their mind becomes so engrossed that they completely forget their painful experiences. In this way concentration can be used to induce tranquility which can further enhance concentration in a virtuous circle.

In one of his discourses, Osho said that people with a thinking disposition and philosophers often complain that mundane things bore them. He divided people into two broad categories — the ‘buffaloes’ and the ‘Buddhas’. He said that the buffaloes were the hedonistic types — they had no grand purpose in life but were content with their daily existence and never thought too much about the monotony of daily existence. The Buddhas on the other hand were the intellectual types, trying to seek a deeper purpose and meaning in life and their existence and would easily tire of routine. Osho said, “Either be a buffalo or a Buddha”. He meant that either ignore the routine activities completely or observe routine so minutely that the novelty of life becomes apparent in this micro-observation. This is the way to transform the mundane into the sacred. This requires tremendous alertness and concentration, which in this context can actually be called awareness, presence, consciousness, mindfulness etc. Incidentally Buddha also said, “The stages of the Noble Path are: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Behaviour, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” Right concentration is mentioned last but is certainly not the least — trains in Japan and Germany move at 500 miles an hour because of the concentrated force of superconductivity or electrons moving in one direction without any resistance.

Another statement of Buddha sums it up: “Wakefulness is the way of life.” J krishnamuthy talked of constantly witnessing all thoughts, feelings and actions as they arise. Osho says that being totally aware and in the present is the key to transcend negative emotions and overcome all kinds of suffering. He says, “If you are present when anger is happening, anger cannot happen… In fact, there is only one sin and that is unawareness. When you become aware, your body becomes more relaxed, your body becomes more attuned, a deep peace starts prevailing even in your body; a subtle music pulsates in your body”

From the above, it seems that constant watchfulness has the kind of effect on your body and mind that sports do. Talking of sportspeople, the best cricket Team in the world, Australia indulges in sledging primarily to disturb the opponent’s concentration. Sachin Tendulkar actually said once, “If concentration wavers, the brain does not pass signals at the pace that the ball comes.” When asked on a tour to Bangladesh on how easy it must be for someone like him to face Bangladeshi bowlers, Sachin replied, “I only think of the ball and its merit and not the bowler.” This is to induce what sportsmen call a state of “flow” in which they forget all else and are totally focused on their sport as a means to excel. Pete Sampras, who won the maximum number of grand slams, attributes his success to being able to achieve flow as one of the main reasons. Martina Navratilova puts it even more precisely and concisely: “I try to concentrate on concentrating.” Can you afford to do otherwise?

Child-A seed or a weed?

This article was published in the April’2008 of the Education magazine Educare

Right education

Enforcing a standard system of education on children to whom it does not apply can be disastrous

On March 17, 2008, The Times of India reported that a total of 5,857 students committed suicide in the year 2006. According to national crime bureau statistics, of this 5,628 students were below the age of 30. In my previous article on the subject in March 2008, I was not aware of the statistics and one really wonders what the overall trend over the years has been. In the previous article, I had mentioned some small practical steps that the government has been taking to ease the exam tension. That apart, since a lot of competition is for admission in educational institutions, the government should seriously contemplate inviting foreign universities or whatever it takes to increase the number of educational institutions. In the same NCRB statistics, it is given that farming related suicides in 2006 were 17,060. If the government can waive Rs 60,000 Cr for farmers in the recent union budget even if it represented vote bank politics, they can surely do something for the students.

The previous article ended with how the education system does not cater to the kinesthetic learner or people who prefer to learn through a more hands on approach. An article on boosting brain power in the Readers Digest divided learners into several IQ groups — the bottom five per cent with a risk of not functioning in society, the next 20 per cent ‘slow learners’; the middle 50 per cent hands-on types who learn better on the job than in the classroom; the next 20 per cent potential leaders. The last category was of the successful five per cent that were the best brains or thinkers. It seems that in spotting the last two categories or the cream, the education system converts the dream of the rest into a nightmare.

As stated above, many people prefer learning by doing or application and to have a standard education system for different kinds of learning or assessing styles is fundamentally wrong. That apart, in practical life, it is application alone that matters and the education system should be more application oriented instead of testing knowledge and memory, which, in any case is a little out of place in the internet era. In an India Today article a few years ago, professor Yash Pal, eminent scientist and chairman of the Steering Committee for Curricular Reform, said, “Technology has provided the means of recording and retrieving information at will. It is stupid for us to want students to do that. We must make exams in such a way that it does not bank on memory but emphasises thinking capability and understanding.” That depends a lot on the individual learning style of the student apart from aptitude.

Bill Gates puts it very profoundly in his book, Business at the speed of thought: “Technology makes it easier to scale classes to age and ability and individualise learning. About fifty major theories attempt to characterise individual learning styles. All people have different levels of aptitude and different personalities and life experiences that may motivate or demotivate them to learn. PCs can help change the learning experience from the traditional approach, a teacher instructing in front of the class room to a more hands-on approach that takes advantage of the natural curiosity of all ages.” Though Gates is talking more in the context of how the PC and the internet can be used to enhance learning , his emphasis on a more hands on approach or an approach that makes learning easier and interesting for different types of children is clearly evident.

Our education system seems to stick to traditional methods of teaching and assessing, which is perhaps in their own interest. George Bernard Shaw said: “Those who can, teach, else they do”. Steve Nordby improved upon that quote by saying: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach. Those who can’t teach train teachers. Those who can’t train teachers write teacher training textbooks.” In some ways, it seems that teaching is more geared to fulfil the needs of the teacher to teach rather than customising what is taught to the learning style of the students.

Here, the role of kith and kin of the students also have a role to play. I had on one occasion discussed student suicides with one of Delhi’s top nuero-psychiatrists who had pamphlets in his reception on how to spot a potential suicide from a variety of reasons. Where students are concerned, he said, “The problem in India is that everybody considers themselves an expert on all sorts of issues. When the person concerned himself has a lot of problem determining his own potential, where is the need for everyone to give an opinion?” People have tendencies to make comparisons with others and offer judgments like ‘excuses’ or ‘attitude problem’, which maybe far from the truth, which may have more to do with the individuality of the person concerned.

Recently, I completed a one week ‘Training the Trainer’ programme from the Indian society for training and development. While I was contemplating joining the programme, I asked the programme director, Major General Dhir, the difference between the one-week programme and an eighteen-month diploma on the same subject. He promptly replied, “In the diploma, the focus is more on the subject and the knowledge. In the one week course, the focus is more on the individual and skills.” In other words, the workshop was more application oriented. I could not help wondering whether or not what Major General Dhir said was the bane of the education system. We are required to answer a questionnaire referring to notes and outside books, write a dissertation followed by a video recording of six hours of training. This may not suit all subjects but is a far more practical method of assessment. Testing memory puts unnecessary stress on the students and does not really test their potential. Therefore, it is a loss both ways. Training is clearly a more hands-on approach than teaching and probably suits a lot of students.

I have myself come across several people, who, though not qualified MBAs have better functional talent. Here is an example of one such hands-on learner, Suvir Behl, a shares trader and investor who did very well in practical life despite not doing that well academically. In his own words: “After completing my graduation in 1998, I completed a course at National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in the year 2000, after which I tried for a couple of jobs in the garments sector, but they did not appeal to me. Since my maternal grandfather had been a very good and successful investor, the stock markets had always been a fascination. I started in the stock markets in a small way in 2001, by investing small sums of money both for me and my immediate family. Initially, there were times when I lost money but they were more in the nature of teething troubles and learning experiences. In my view, the failures are as instrumental for consistent long term success as knowledge or intelligence. I started reading extensively about the markets and the various companies I invested in. I learnt a lot and consider myself reasonably successful today. From the seed capital with which I started , my portfolio has multiplied several times, and my clientele is improving quantitatively and qualitatively every year.”

He added: “Though never short of confidence, I was an average student throughout school and college. I feel that to be successful in life, deep interest and knowledge about one’s profession which comes by experience and basic practical in intelligence is more important than degrees. In my own case, though I never attended any formal course in the stock market, the broad reading fuelled by my natural interest queered the pitch for success.”

I must add here that following Suvir’s footsteps is not recommended. The stockmarket has also proved to be extremely dangerous for certain other youngsters. The broker confirmed that Suvir was a good investor and a success as a trader which is more an exception than the rule.. Trading psychology itself advocates that one should discover one’s niche and style instead of blindly acquiring knowledge. I found Suvir equally if not more resourceful than some of other well known and more qualified traders.

In my previous article, I mentioned about my friend AK, who got several double promotions and went on to establish businesses of his own. In my last meeting with him, he mentioned that in his engineering college, one of his friends, RG was the topper but in real life he invited AK to join his company as finance was not his cup of tea and AK had better all round practical intelligence. AK also mentioned that a few months back a relatively less qualified but street smart businessman could prove to be a tough competitor but qualifications can make a very good first impression. However, if degrees are not backed by performance, they can flatter to deceive. There is another friend of ours who is a chartered accountant by qualification but does not seem to be doing well either in that profession or the businesses that he has tried so far.

In recent times, two men who have done really well in real life without commensurate educational achievements are Sunil Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Telecom and Naresh Goyal, chairman of Jet Airways. Amitabh Bachchan and Kishore Kumar had no real formal training in their respective fields but both were outstanding successes in their chosen professions. In a recent book Dhirubhaiism, the author, AG Krishnamurthy states: “Dhirubhai could see skills in us we never knew we had.” The author further states that in following Dhirubhai’s philosophy, as chairman of Mudra advertising , he went to talented newcomers instead of tried and tested superstars and reaped rich dividends. It is ultimately functional and practical talent that matters more in the real world than anything else.

In a recent book Be Inspired, the author, a Sydney-based Indian, Amber Ahuja has given each of the above in detail in the form of worksheet skills and abilities assessment directions. Giving Indian examples, the same book also states at four give different places how critical it is to identify one’s career correctly early in life for long term success. That need not be necessarily reflected in one’s qualifications. Morgan and Banks have also stated that niche individuals or those who are good at few things should even be more particular about choosing the right career. What happens to those who are not able to do so?

I had written my first article on career misfits in life. Though I had titled it ‘The essence of true education’, the editor after finding the content too strong, changed it to “Don’t settle for less than a calling”. Thereafter, I have regularly come across 2-3 US-based websites every year, which talk of frustration in the wrong career even, if, in some cases it pays off well. One website I came across last week is UK centric and is called careershifters.org . Some of the terms used in this website like switch doctors, switch surgeries apart from giving ‘inspiring real life stories’ also reflect the magnitude of the problem. Several career coaches or switch doctors have written several articles on the subject. Some of them are drastic career switches from what they were earlier doing or qualified.

One of the links from this site leads to escape-club the objective of which reads something like this: “Are you a successful professional, but bored or unhappy with your work? Do you want to be more fulfilled and feel that your work actually has an impact? We believe that you can ‘escape’ to work that is meaningful, and want to help you a identify what is the work that would bring you more fulfilment and overall happiness, create an action plan to help you get the work.” It really reminds me of the movie The great escape. In one cover story of Fortune magazine, one executive was quoted as saying, “You get to the top of the ladder and find that maybe it’s leaning against the wrong building.”. This clearly shows that just being well qualified and reaching the top does not lead to the kind of personal fulfilment that should normally be the end result of by product of success. There is plenty of evidence to show that in the long run, people look more for meaningful work than mere monetary reward. Reminds one of the interesting saying “Work is what you do to make the money to do what you really want to do.”

One has to be able to identify one’s true calling as early as possible. IIM Lucknow professor, Debashish Chatterjee in his book Break free states that to identify one’s true talent, one has to go back to one’s school days and determine what activity they enjoyed the most during leisure, to find out whether one could carry out this activity for a long period of time and determine whether or not this activity made you truly happy. Professor Chatterjee’s views are in congruence with what many American psychologists have to say on the subject. The teacher’s role should be geared more towards this when a child is more in the seed form rather than blindly stuffing knowledge.

One wonders if the biblical parable of the sower and the seed can be applied to different kinds of individuals in terms of their learning styles and how a standard education system can be redundant. In the parable it is said that some seeds scattered by the farmer fell on the wayside and were devoured by the birds; some fell on stony places where they could not build sufficient root and withered when the sun shone; some fell among thorns, which grew up and choked them but some fell on good ground where they grew and bore fruit. A child is like a seed and this is what can happen to the seed if it falls in the wrong place in terms of a wrong career and of the wrong learning style that has been vividly described above. Once again, the words of Wipro chairman Azim Premji come to mind. Imagine a school, which sees children as seeds to be nurtured — here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child. This is very different from the current view, which sees the child as clay to be moulded where the teachers and parents are potters deciding what shape the clay should take.” Enforcing a standard education system on children to whom it does not apply is bound to have disastrous results. There is an old Chinese saying, “Give a seed to a potter and you shall have a bonsai.”

From the suicide statistics, it almost seems that instead of a seed, a child is treated like a weed in our society. About 2,500 years ago, Socrates said that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. According to Prof Chatterjee, the difference between a candle and a flame is the difference between a resource and a source. A resource reduces when shared and a source gets augmented when shared. A candle is a good source but is burnt out. On the other hand , a flame can alight a million other flames, which is what can happen in the long run when a seed is given the right kind of environment.

Lead India; don’t Bleed India

This article is published in the March’2008 issue of the magazine Management compass

What is an idea without execution?

RK Mishra’s readiness to get hands dirty made him Lead India winner

The lead India campaign launched by The Times of India to provide an alternative platform for those desirous of joining politics culminated on February 9, 2007 when RK Mishra from Bangalore was declared winner and Dewang Nanavati was declared the runner up. The manner in which the entire campaign was conducted and the kind of response it drew made it seem that the process itself was the biggest winner. No wonder former President Abdul Kalam declared, “Lead India is the best movement I have come across in the recent past.”

Victory apart, Mr Mishra has an interesting profile and is quite a role model for young people. Born in 1965, he is an ME graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Having been a successful entrepreneur, he left the lucrative corporate world in 2005 to bring about large-scale social change. Mishra specialises in policy planning and investments and works with the governments of Karnataka and Rajasthan among others. He is obsessed with making a difference in infrastructure and rural education, as reflected in his blog http://rajendramisra.blogspot.com.

What clinched the victory was a plan that he outlined to set up a co-operative dairy farm to transform the life in the village where he was born. He presented a well thought- out plan with time-bound targets and actionable goals, which impressed both the audience and the jury. The Times of India further reports, “The combination of Mishra’s story — rags to riches to social service — and his successful track record both as serial entrepreneur and activist proved to be unbeatable. His ability to think big, coupled with his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, made a big impact in the one sided 6-1 verdict.”

He reminds you of Shah Rukh Khan’s role in Swades, where he plays an NRI who becomes determined to help bring prosperity to his village. Around the time the movie was released, India Today, in one of its issues, highlighted how some other NRIs in reality were actually doing the same thing. It is not everyday that real life follows reel life in such matters and it should form a complete virtuous circle when they are again highlighted on reel — on television. Shah Rukh had said in one of his interviews, “It takes a show off to be a show on.” Who would have known about Mishra if Lead India and TV had not highlighted him. Such committed people can do a world of good to politics.

Both the winner and the runner-up complimented each other’s strengths. Nanavati conceded that “RK is a doer, not a talker” which probably gave him the edge. Mishra acknowledged Nanavati’s skills “Dewang argues his case well. I must learn from him.” Their comments reminds one of the Japanese proverb “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Articulating one’s vision effectively and implementing the same are equally important. Even venture capitalists say that they fund teams and execution, not ideas. Our entrepreneurs are now being respected in boardrooms and markets all over the world for their ability to combine vision and ambition with execution. There is no reason why it should be different in politics; the hand is the cutting edge of the mind.

Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh made an interesting remark
“Lead India is a very good concept. But it deals with the classes. Only when these finalists have their share of blending with the masses, will a real leader emerge.” Being proved competent is one thing but that need not always translate into votes. Former Pakistani captain Imran Khan is a case in point. Being a national icon because of being a very good all rounder and a great cricket captain, who won them the world cup in 1992, he also took the initiative of having a cancer hospital constructed, which also won him a lot of appreciation. But when he joined active politics, he could not translate his achievements into votes. Even accounting for the fact that Pakistan is not really a successful democracy, one cannot take the voters or a mass base for granted.

Talking of Pakistan in this context brings to mind Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of Murtaza and grand daughter of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. An established newspaper columnist in her own right, this is what Fatima had to say about dynastic politics after the recent death of her aunt, Benazir, “The idea that it has to be a Bhutto, I think, is a dangerous one. It doesn’t benefit Pakistan. It doesn’t benefit a party that’s supposed to be run on democratic lines and it doesn’t benefit us as citizens if we think only about personalities and not about platforms.” She also rejected her own claim to the Bhutto legacy. The Times initiative has created a kind of alternative platform of sorts in India at least and it is only a matter of time before other personalities emerge.

In India’s context, a prominent former US secretary of state had once said, “The most powerful job in the world is that of the president of the United states but the most difficult job in the world is that of the prime minister of India.” He probably said that because of the different kinds of diversities that we have in India which can make a politician’s job tougher and implies the need for really talented people. Whether somebody should come from a political family or not, he should be and seen to be competent. Ability should be supported by visibility and the Lead India has shown how TV can be used effectively for this to fructify.

One of the best performing politicians in recent times has been Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Being a Delhi based Gujarati, one cannot know the ground reality in Gujarat but whenever I go to Ahmedabad, I am amazed at the kind of popular support he enjoys. The people there not only keep reiterating that he knows how to run the government but also speak about his clean image. Having won the election for the third time in succession, he has proved that the anti-incumbency syndrome can be an exception, not the rule. The February 18 latest issue of India Today has reported that voters across the country voted him as the best chief minister. Though 77 per cent of the voters in Gujarat rated him the best chief minister ever, he got a nationwide approval rating of 19 per cent and polled double the number of votes than his nearest rival, UP chief minister Mayawati. This shows that for people, development and not emotive issues is the prime agenda. Maybe television could also be used to highlight the good points of Modi’s governance for everybody’s benefit, just as young MBAs used to go to Karasanbhai Patel’s Nirma once upon a time to learn about how it took on Hindustan lever.

Unfortunately, unlike the two major forces that unite India, Bollywood and cricket, politics is not transparent enough for the wrong kind of people to be weeded out. Unlike the corporate world, where in addition to short and long term goals, job description, competencies and role analysis are identified and followed up by performance management, nothing like that takes place in politics, which is strange because the scale of operations and implications are far greater in a country than a company. One gets to read several newspaper reports that the public in the US is not only disenchanted with President Bush but also dissatisfied with the kind of leadership options that they have in the current Presidential elections. When people like Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj singh can be criticised strongly for non-performance, there should be no scope for poor performance in politics even in the short term and there should be a mechanism for removing non performers instead of waiting for five years. Such mechanisms should also prevent them from taking grossly unpopular moves like the Iraq war for instance.

At the same time, one should have realistic expectations from politicians. The book Mind of a Manager, Soul of a Leader says that charismatic leaders get organisations started and then pass on the baton to the bureaucrats, professionals or scientific managers who can run them. In the BJP, while Vajpayee is credited with brilliant oratory and charisma, it is Advani who is perceived as the capable organisation man. Thought leadership and executive leadership does not necessarily have to emanate from the same person. There should be a proper follow —through to ensure that they are performing to their potential.

Modi had said in one of his interviews that development without security does not have much meaning. In a similar vein, talent without transparency does not have much meaning. In the past 15 years, business has increasingly discovered the virtues of good governance, not necessarily because of a sudden stab of conscience, but because of the premium that foreign investors place on transparency Why should voters not do the same? In the age of mass communication, if the media does not make latent political talent transparent, who will? Lead India is an effective rebuttal to those who say that the media only focuses on negative events. The rest of the media should follow the lead of The Times of India, which in turn should also try to highlight non —performers — Lead India; don’t Bleed India.

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In my original submission to the editor, I had mentioned in the context of different thought and executive leaderhship that the current ruling party team of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh also reperesent different leaderships. While Mrs Gandhi can sway the masses with the background of her political legacy of the Gandhi family, Mr Manmohan singh is the head of the government on merit. The orator/charmer/rabble rouser does not have to be a part of the govt and vice versa. One can only hope for the day, when like our cricket and filmstars, politicians too acquire a mass base on good governance instead of parochial emotive issues or diversities fuelled by the illiteracy of our masses.

For those interested I had also covered Talent Management in Politics in my earlier article Pahle Aandhi Phir Gandhi published in the same magazine in October’2007.

Testing times

This article is published in the February issue of the Education magazine, Educare.

Testing times

Unrealistic expectations drive students to drastic steps, including suicide

March 2006 reported four suicides related to the board exams in New Delhi in a very short time span. In March 2005, six students took their lives a fortnight before the board exams, 300 others reportedly attempted to commit suicide and 70 per cent of the students were reported to be suffering from stress and anxiety. In Surat, two out of three girls who attempted suicide died. In March 2004, two Calcutta based students committed suicide within a span of a week because of being unable to bear the stress of exams.
Year after year, one gets to read news like this in the month of March. One wonders whether the battle against the board exams has been able to march forward or not. NCERT has recommended steps like provision for retaking the exam in a short span, using words other than “fail” to reduce stigma and avoid complete demoralisation, reform the examination system and remodel the question paper to test creativity and application of mind, have flexible time during the exams, use grading system instead of marks, have counsellors interact with students, teachers and parents, provide for one teacher
from each school to be given short term training for stress related problems etc.

While all these steps are very welcome, one wonders if they strike at the root of the problem. The fear of the boards is largely a fear of not doing well in life because in the ultimate analysis, the exam is a means to an end. Just as cricketers require match practice to simulate real match situations in addition to net practice for the real matches, education of practical life situations is a must as the exams come more in the category of net practice. One article on board exam suicides spoke of the need for emotional intelligence, but in my view, there should be more education on how practical life functions because that is the real thing. It may sound fancy to say that there is more to life than exams but what it means in reality is that some foolish perceptions related to the exams and practical life should also be reviewed by the students, parents, teachers and society at large.

From the life success perspective, the perception that the whole future of the student hinges on one exam is like saying that the entire batting hinges on the opening batsmen in cricket. In an article in India Today some years back, this is what the then vice chancellor, Delhi University, Deepak Nayyar had to say, “It’s like the Last Chance Saloon, there is no second choice. Class XII is looked upon as the end of the world. Some of the greatest innovative successes in the world have happened because people followed their heart, pursued their passion and brought about something new the formal education of which was obviously non-existent at that time. I gave the example of Henri Ford in my previous writeup. In the modern world, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, the google founders all come in that category. All three left formal education to pursue their dream.

This should also serve as a lesson for those parents who try to impose their dreams on their child. Everybody cannot follow their heart like the above gentlemen but giving over importance to formal education is also not correct. You may prove to be good at the real thing. I also read about a couple of Nobel prize winners explaining how formal education would have been a liability instead of an asset in their case because lack of structured thinking facilitated creative ideas. This maybe an exception rather than the rule but puts things in perspective because ultimately, creative ideas in any field lead to grand success.
Nayyar further added, “It would be terrible in the world if everyone stood first or everyone was outstanding.” I met one such super achiever in management whom I consider my best boss. After getting three double promotions and rising to become CEO from assistant manager in just one year, he outclassed the chairman and went on to set up a big project consultancy business within a span of few years and further diversified into hotels and BPOs. Since there were four others from the same institute, it would have created a lot of office politics and friction had he not been obviously outstanding and his leadership straightaway accepted by the others. It is a good thing that providence does not make people equally talented as otherwise, if people continuously try to outdo one another, nothing concrete could be achieved.

That apart, there are some practical constraints to be kept in mind even if one’s child becomes a super achiever. The same boss mentioned above, who had the all round excellence gave equal partnerships to all partners when he started his business though he could have easily got the lion’s share. In his own words this was because “he could not be at all places at all times”. He achieved more in three years than people do in ten because of this wisdom in addition to business smartness. Everybody may not be able to follow this example but certain realities of practical life have to be taken into account before setting individual goals. I met one gentleman on the Tennis court who claimed to be a super achiever in sports; he said that he was good at all racquet games and was selected for his school in all three- Table Tennis, Badminton and Lawn Tennis but he had to drop Table Tennis as its tournaments were clashing with the other two. In his autobiography A double life, former Lintas chairman Alyque Padamsee explains the practical problems on perusing two careers throughout life. Even within the right career, it is better if one is in the right sub-vocation. Charles Dickens found no success as a playwright despite great effort. Author of innumerable children’s books, Enid Blyton admitted that if she had to write an article she would find it difficult. Our own VVS Laxman enjoys an awesome reputation against the best cricket team in the world, Australia but is overlooked for one- day cricket and has not played a single world cup.

This reminds me of some parents’ obsession of making “all rounders” of their children.
A six year child’s schedule was mentioned in an article on raising superkids: 9-2 school, 3.30-4.30 tuition, 5-6 Lawn Tennis classes, 6-7 Guitar class, homework upto 9, after which thankfully he retires to bed. He also attends special three-hour maths classes during weekends. This hardly leaves any scope for childhood experiences or knowing the child’s innate potential. Practical life looks more for well-rounded teams and well-rounded individuals with specified niches, instead of super all rounders. In cricket, genuinely good all rounders as a percentage of total cricketers is very low. Only Imran Khan has the unique record of being very good all rounder and a great captain. Some years ago, Rahul Dravid mentioned in an interview how young people try to start as all rounders but when they come across a tough wicket, they realise that bowling is not their cup of tea. When one thinks of India’s great all rounders, only Kapil Dev and Vinoo Mankad come to mind. Recently, even after getting a test hundred, Irfaan Pathan said that he had the makings of a consistent good all rounder only in the long run. It is better to be a well-rounded person knowing your niche rather than an all marauding super all rounder. Jack of all, master of none does not mean anything in today’s world.

Instead of striving for all round excellence, it is better make an inventory of one’s talents and interests and focus on that. In my August 2007 article Livelihood, a lively way, I have given several examples how very well qualified people also choose a completely different career because that is where their passion lies. Sometimes, the new careers lack both status and money compared to the previous ones. There are 11 similar articles on my blog- http://mypyp.wordpress.com/.

Since a majority of examples are American, the views of an Indian, Virendra Kapoor, who is on the HR committee of CII, are worth noting. This is what he has written in his wonderful book, Passion Quotient: The Greatest Secret of Success. “I met one fellow who had done his electrical engineering and today he is a top criminal lawyer. I asked him how did this happen. In very simple words he said that after graduating from IIT, he worked for a good MNC for three years, was earning a good pay packed but was not really enjoying his job. So he did his LLB and then LLM and has been practicing law for more than fifteen years. You therefore see chartered accountants as successful film directors, mathematics professors turning into great actors or doctors becoming top cops.”

One has to know correctly where one’s talents and interest lie and follow that wholeheartedly, instead of being obsessed with degrees. This is what Gita Piramal has to say on one super achiever in real life, the late Dhirubhai Ambani in her book Business Maharahas. “Ambani’s single mindedness is legendary and he is proud of it. In his own words, ‘I am not a director in other companies. I am not actively participating in any associations or anything else. My whole thinking, one hundred percent of my time, from morning till evening, is about how to do better and better at Reliance. No art previews, no theatre, no films and he rarely used to switch his CD player.” Contrary to this, my father, a CA who turned around a sick company, had this to say of his would-be partner constantly attending mourning functions because of his vast social network, “How can one function if one attends so many functions. If he continues like this, he may have to mourn for his own company one day.”

Apart from the perception of super achievement, a lot many exam related fears are there because of fear of degrees and qualifications. One reads about students killing themselves for not getting a degree of a top institute of their choice. Dhirubhai’s views on that are worth noting. Though they got the best people for technical jobs, on the management side Piramal writes, “The Ambanis don’t rely on paper qualifications. On the contrary, whoever shows initiative gets the job. Reliance’s first marketing manger used to sell petroleum products. Its knitting manager used to be an auto parts salesman.”

The objective of this article is not to undermine formal education but to convey that practical life can be a great leveller and therefore, blind fear or obsession of qualifications does not help in the long run. In the same India Today article it is stated that the problem is that Indian schools teach to produce outstanding students and the uniformity doesn’t accept the average students but puts them through the same obstacles as the high performers do. This can be a problem because the same teaching process need not suit everyone. I heard the great Jimmy Connors say in a video cassette on Tennis, “There is no right or wrong way to play Tennis. It is a matter of what suits you.” Even in cricket Virendra Sehwag and MS Dhoni have succeeded despite having totally unconventional techniques. Dhirubhai Ambani’s success was also more because of unconventional, out of the box thinking than anything else.

Many people who do not do so well academically display pretty practical intelligence in real life. The analyst in a theoretical course need not excel in real life. Prasanna Raman, a software engineer in Bangalore invented a video analysis system for the Indian cricket team and gradually became the technical head of the National cricket academy and computer analyst for the under 19 time. The cricketer or manager, on the other hand need not be a good analyst. Some, like our current captain Anil Kumble maybe good at both-as player and student of the game. Some may decide that their real talent and passion lies somewhere else. Here too, practical life maybe a great leveller. Society should also stop judging people in terms of degrees alone and look for the individual beyond the qualification. What he can actually do well in a sustained manner in practical life is more important that what his degree reveals.

The current education system caters more to the auditory and visual learner (learning through seeing and listening respectively) than the kinesthetic or tactile learners who learn better with a more hands-on approach. Training institutions are proliferating currently who can perhaps provide practical training through workshops to those who may want to learn through a more hands on approach alongside their jobs rather than a purely theoretical course. Practical life is quite different from student life and runs more on this principle by the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius “Tell me and I will Forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.”

Aamir Khan’s “Taare Zameen Par”

This article is published in the January’2008 edition of the education magazine “Educare”

Aamir Khan’s latest film raises very crucial questions

The film Taare Zameen par is a sensitive portrayal of the ordeal of a dyslexic child, Ishaan Awasthi, whose abnormal behaviour is misunderstood and mistaken to be something else both by his teachers and parents. Unaware of dyslexia, they think that he is lazy, stupid, naughty and even arrogant on occasions. Dyslexia is a neurological language processing disorder that affects a student’s ability to process written and spoken information. Students with dyslexia have difficulty pronouncing words, repeating phrases that are spoken to them, understanding the meaning from spoken phrases, and following detailed instructions. They particularly have difficulty in distinguishing similar sounding words and letters.

Ishaan’s agony and ordeal is reduced and gradually overcome when, in the form of Aamir Khan (Ram Shankar Nikumbh in the movie), he meets a teacher who has himself suffered from the problem as a child and is therefore, able to guide him correctly. He is able to draw the attention of both the parents and other teachers on the right focus – on what Ishaan can do or his strengths, rather than his weaknesses. After building his self- confidence by drawing out the painter in him, he gradually manages to reduce the child’s weaknesses through other unique teaching techniques.

Aamir Khan’s first directorial venture does a very good job of highlighting the real and ideal direction of education – drawing out innate potential rather than blindly stuffing facts. Since the film brings that out very well, Azim Premji’s words in my earlier article “Teacher, educate thyself” are worth repeating:-

“The primary purpose of a school is to guide the child’s discovery of herself and her world and to identify and mature the child’s talents. Just as each seed contains the future tree, each child is born with infinite potential.” In the article, he suggested that many teachers and parents try to be potters instead of gardeners in moulding their children’s future. Imagine a school which sees children as seeds to be nurtured – here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child.
In that article, I had mentioned some famous dyslexics in passing reference, which are mentioned as examples in the movie. Their details are engrossing:

Loenardo Da Vinci: a great painter, designer, scientist, futurist and thinker. Most of the time, he wrote his notes backwards, which is exhibited with a mirror in the movie by Aamir. Although unusual, this is a trait shared by many left-handed dyslexic people. Leonardo’s spelling was also considered erratic and quite strange. He also started many more projects then he ever finished – a characteristic now often considered to be ‘ADD’ or attention deficit disorder. However, when it came to drawing illustrations, Leonardo’s work is detailed and precise. Loenardo’s words are revealing: “You should prefer a good scientist without literary abilities than a literate one without scientific skills.”

Thomas Edison, the famous inventor: he was noted to be terrible at mathematics, unable to focus, and had difficulty with words and speech. He was unable to read until he was 12 and his writing skills were poor throughout his life. His teacher thought him to be mentally ill. His mother withdrew the child from school and taught him herself. In his own words “My teachers say I’m addled . . . my father thought I was stupid, and I almost decided I must be a dunce.”

Albert Einstein, history’s most prominent scientist: he could not talk until the age of four. He did not learn to read until he was nine. His teachers considered him slow, unsociable and a dreamer. He failed the entrance examinations to college but finally passed after an additional year of preparation. He lost three teaching positions and then became a paten clerk. In his own words “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.” He also said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”

Pablo Picasso the famous painter: his dyslexia made school difficult, and Pablo never really benefited from school or learning. Dyslexia troubled Picasso for the rest of his long life. Pablo’s father taught art, this got him interested in painting. Picasso also painted because he was born with an ability to see people the way they wanted to be seen, the way they were seen, and the special way Picasso saw them. In his own words, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” That is possible only if children realise their innate potential or essence as very few have multi-dimensional talent.

Picasso’s story is closest to what is shown in the movie. Ishaan is shown to be a very good painter despite being a severe dyslexic, a fact that is highlighted when Aamir joins the school as a temporary arts teacher. The manner in which Ishaan is shown staring out of the window on occasions reminds one of an extract of Osho’s discourse:

“The teacher goes on telling to the small children, ‘Give attention to me. Be attentive.’ They are attentive. But they are attentive somewhere else. A cuckoo is crying his heart outside the school building and the child is attentive. Nobody can say that he is not attentive. Nobody can say that he is not meditative. Nobody can say that he is in deep concentration. He is. In fact, he has completely forgotten the teacher and the arithmetic that he is doing on the board. He is completely oblivious. He is completely possessed by the cuckoo. The child is attentive. It is happening naturally. Listening to the cuckoo he is happy. The teacher is distracting and the teacher says that you are not attentive. He is simply stating a lie. The child was attentive. The cuckoo was more attractive to him. The teacher was not so attractive. The arithmetic has no such appeal. But we are not all born to be mathematicians. There are few children who will not be interested in the cuckoo.The cuckoo may go on madder and madder and they will be attentive to the blackboard. Then Arithmetic is for them. Then they have a meditation, a natural meditative state

Since every weak child is hardly likely to become an Edison or an Einstein, there should be special education on how they fit in. Since many of these great people struggled in humble skills, humble talents should not be taken for granted. The Gallup corporation in its book “First, break all the rules” highlights examples of waiters, bartenders, housekeepers, nurses, data entry operators etc as to how the best were different from the rest even in minor jobs and were compensated highly without necessarily being promoted, if they did not have the talent for man management. The best bartender was someone who remembered names of 3,000 guests and their drinks and the champion data entry operator was four times faster than the rest. Even something like housekeeping is studied in great detail so that the rest (poor housekeepers) learn from the best.

Though the movie shows the child making some headway in overcoming his weaknesses, real life does not always turn out to be like that. Apart from Picasso, there are several famous dyslexics, who have had similar problems throughout their lives – General George Patton, President Woodrow Wilson, President George Washington, writer Agatha Christie etc. Another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise, despite being a success in his chosen field, can learn lines only by listening to a tape. If one googles for dyslexia, one comes across sites with a message like “famous people with the gift of dyslexia” Lesser-known celebrities also have severe reading difficulties but are yet successful in their respective fields. An extreme case is that of Ronald Davis, author. “At the age of 38 I could score 169 on the IQ test but I couldn’t read a menu in a restaurant. What the average person could read in 5 minutes would take me an hour,” the author once said about himself.

The lives of two famous dyslexics not mentioned in the movie – Henri Ford and Winston Churchill. Henri Ford: His father, a farmer, had only that career in mind for his son and tried to equip him with all the relevant skills – tending plants, eliminating pests and weeds, ploughing etc. Henry occasionally went with his father to the farm, but, his mind hovered around the hoe and the mechanical plough, the tools of his trade. His father, often exasperated, pleaded, cajoled, shouted and screamed. These had only a temporary impact. Henri’s heart was not in farming. In the movie Aamir Khan says, “Bachche ka hunar kya hai?”. His “hunar” or functional talent may not be necessarily reflected in his qualifications, which is why it is said, “Choose your career not on the basis of what you know but who you are”. It is very hard to believe that a mentally disabled child can do well in a field not of his liking. If that were so, they would not have so many problems with conventional education. Can one imagine Henri Ford achieving the same success in farming or any other field?

Churchill failed grade VIII, did terrible in math and generally hated school. In his own words, “I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.” Being in the right occupation is probably how the problems of some of the dyslexics got neutralised and how they were able to sustain their success despite suffering for a lifetime. On the other hand, being in the wrong occupation can entail a lifetime of suffering despite having no mental disability.

Since some psychologists try to identify childhood interests to solve this problem, the views of the other great mystic/intellectual J Krishnamurthy are worth noting: “In building enormous educational institutions and employing teachers who depend on a system instead of being alert and observant in their relationship with the individual student, we merely encourage the accumulation of facts, the development of capacity and the habit of thinking mechanically, according to a pattern; but certainly none of this helps the student to grow into an integrated human being. A large and flourishing educational institution can turn out bank clerks and super salesmen, industrialists or commissars, superficial people who are technically efficient but there is hope only in the integrated individual which the small school can bring about. If the classes are small and the teacher is able to give his full attention to each child, observing him and helping him, then compulsion or domination in any form is obviously unnecessary. It is intelligence that brings order, not discipline.” This can be witnessed in the movie when Aamir starts giving individual attention to the Ishaan and is able to help overcome his difficulty. Both Osho and Krishnamurthy have stressed the importance of helping the child find his right vocation in their discourses.

Since Aamir’s role fits into Krishnamurthy’s description of an ideal educator, his comments on the teacher’s role are worth mentioning “ If the teachers are not sure of their own vocation and interest, there are bound to be superficial bickerings, jealousies, misunderstandings etc, which can be passed over only if there is a burning interest in bringing about the right kind of education. To observe each child’s tendencies, his aptitudes, his temperament, his attitudes, to understand his difficulties taking his heredity and parental influence into account requires patience, alertness, intelligence, skill, interest and above all a sense of affection. To produce educators endowed with these qualities is one of our major problems today.”

Aamir has shown basically what talent management is all about. There are people like Dhirubhai Ambani, Bill Gates and Jack Welch, who have been able to see the latent talent and been able to draw that out, despite different degrees and qualifications. The focus always has to be more on uniqueness of the individual – what the individual does with the knowledge rather than knowledge per se, or what he can do uniquely. All life is talent management. If that were not so, books like Working identity would never be written. Since it explains how tough career transition can be, special efforts should be made to help people who may have made the wrong choice. In a recent article in Readers Digest, the great mathematician Hardy says that he may have mentored maths genius Ramanujan but he learnt much more from Ramanujan then the other way around. This is what happen when teachers see their role as educators- just as Aamir has directed the film so well, they have to provide the direction in real life.

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The sentences in bold above should also have been included. Though the editor omitted this paragraph, I personally feel that after the para in which Osho describes the child obsessed with the cuckoo, this should have been added:-

Though Osho probably said this in the context of detecting the different kind of child, it has to be taken in the right perspective. Just as television is considered to be the “chewing gum” or “idiot box” , too much idle day dreaming without applying brains at all can be a case of “Use it or lose it”. The brain also needs other exercises apart from imagination for an evenly balanced growth.

These views of eminent dyslexics also deserve a mention-

It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction- Picasso

“Working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation”- Winston churchill

“I never worked in my life. It was all fun”- Thomas Edison

This is a humorous story that on Sir Issac Newton that could also have been added:-

Apart from Einstein’s comment on Income tax , there is a humorous story of the great inventor, Sir Issac Newton and his cats. Whilst studying color and the order it came in a prism, Newton used to go up to his attic where there was only one window and in order to control light, he needed to black out the room. His cat loved to be with him, and she constantly nosed the door open, which would then let the light in – thus spoiling his experiments. Not wanting to upset her, he decided to cut a small opening in the doorway which he then covered with felt attached to the top of the opening Now cat and master were happy – the cat could come and go at will, and Isaac wasn’t disturbed by her comings and goings, and could continue his experiments in peace. It is said that all geniuses sometimes have a blind spot and when his cat had kittens, so anxious was he to please them, that he cut several smaller holes alongside the original one so that they could come and go whenever they wanted to. It didn’t occur to him they could use the existing one! As they say, “common sense is most uncommon” and even geniuses are not immune to that.

Former International HR consultants Morgan and Banks had expressed the view that niche individuals who were good at only a few things had the worst time in the wrong profession. Dyslexics/ADHD children have high IQ but often have such one dimensional intelligence.