Subba’s Serendipitous moments

July 16, 2010

It’s not what you think, but how you think that matters!

 

Clayton Christensen the celebrated Harvard Professor and the guru on innovation speaks to the HBS graduating class of 2010 on how to apply management lessons to personal lives. It is not just an inspiring read, but an instructive read for everyone.

After a preliminary introduction where he establishes with amazing conviction the 30 minute conversation that he had with Andy Grove which led to the development of Celeron, he gives 6 key lessons which should be applicable to all of us.

Create a strategy for your life:

“I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces”. In my view, the pursuit of purpose surpasses all other pursuits. I learnt this quite late in life.

Allocate your resources:

“People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most”.

Create a culture:

Knowing what tools to wield to elicit the needed cooperation is a critical managerial skill.

Families have cultures, just as companies do. Those cultures can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently.

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Avoid the “marginal costs mistake:

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

Remember the importance of humility:

If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited. Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too.

Choose the right yardstick:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

My own mid life realizations and some of the life lessons have been written here.

Well, I would strongly recommend that you read his entire lecture as he backs up the brilliant instructions with observations and decisions that he made in his personal life. The entire lecture can be found here.

July 15, 2010

We are a product of our choices!

Filed under: Business,Inspiration,Learning,Perspective,Winning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:13 pm
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Jeff Bezos of Amazon (someone whom I have admired deeply) puts this simple truth amazingly well in his 2010 Baccalaureate remarks at Princeton University. The complete address can be read here.

Jeff brings out the distinction between gifts and choices. He says: “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.” How true!

The tragedy for most people in the world is that they are blissfully unaware of the choices that they have! It becomes far more tragic when they ignore or dismiss the choices presented to them. Clearly the choose to wallow in their misery. The defining argument they give is what if the choice was wrong! Jeff handles this possible question again very well.

To me, maturity is not a function of age or even intelligence. It is the element when they become aware of their choices and making the right choice.

August 3, 2009

Be yourself

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” — Chinese proverb.

I can’t think of a more simple, yet a deep truth. I was discussing my earlier blog post with 2 of my friends. Both believed that to be successful one should adapt, which means constantly changing oneself to circumstances. And if one has to change, one has to let go one’s true self. I will write my response to their observations in a separate post, but for now, I just want to do a follow up post which hopefully should clarify my stance.

I think most of us have a tendency to sell ourselves in situations even when we faintly perceive that we are being evaluated or judged. We worry too much about who we think we should be, instead of just being who we are. We over-value what we aren’t and undervalue what we are.

Regardless of where, when, or why of any situation, we should always be ourselves. I am specifically referring to a staying true to one’s principles and faith. The challenging part of this that there will be times when we need to challenge ourselves from a personality standpoint. We cannot just say, “Well, that’s the way, I am”. We all have such opportunities to challenge ourselves in matters of ability, growth, mental models and even beliefs. I say this with a smirk because I can tell from experience that it isn’t easy, though it may sound so.

People miss the amazing leverage that can come into play when they do buy into their vision for their own life and determining what’s preventing themselves from achieving it.

Death isn’t the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live.

August 2, 2009

Underdogs can win

Underdogs win more times than we think, but is there a set approach that characterizes their win? I have always been intrigued by their winning approaches and the tipping points that gives them the decisive competitive advantage.

Having delved into business strategy research and practice for a while, I still couldn’t come across any clear framework that advises underdogs of how to take the battle against the more powerful opponent.

Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and the more recent Outliers) writes a brilliant piece on how David can beat Goliath. The article is a bit long, but it makes compelling and instructive reading. It has several brilliant anecdotes written in the typical Malcolm style. What is amazing is how Vivek Ranadive uses the principles of real time information processing and the way he built TIBCO — a hugely successful software company, to coach his daughter’s school basketball team for the National Junior Basketball championship. Vivek never played basketball, nor was he a coach, yet his astute assessment of the game’s dynamics and mapping out to the real time information processing and how TIBCO became successful shows what a smart mind can do given a challenge. Vivek is also the author of the bestseller: “The Power of Now: How winning companies sense and respond to change using real-time technology”

Malcolm also draws from various other examples in sports, conventional wars to illustrate the following principles:

  1. First acknowledge your weakness and then choose an unconventional strategy.
  2. Choose not to play by Goliath’s rules.
  3. Be bold and do what could be even termed as “socially horrifying”— challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.
  4. Do not be scared of being disapproved by the insider.
  5. Believe in the fact that a defender’s dilemma is very often the attacker’s advantage.


May 20, 2009

Can a Susan Boyle happen in East Asia?

My learned friend Ananth put this question to his email group. His precise question was: Can Susan Boyle, (58 million views on YouTube), Julian Smith and Diversity happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies?

Here’s my answer to him and I just thought I would post it here as well:

I don’t think it can happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies. Let me try to deal at 2 levels: — The nature of East Asian society and the issue of culture and specifically creativity.

For such things to happen, society needs to be a genuine melting pot. East Asia may have immigrants, but the practice of assimilation and morphing of identities is only residual. Cultural pluralism may exist on the surface, but politicians and institutions have often curbed growth because they felt the need to retain control or sometimes even believed that they need to architect society, and hence have never allowed cross-cultural pollination to take place freely. Hegemonic practices have often imposed covert forces on the sections of society which have lived on the edge and tried to dominate them. In Western societies there is a not merely an appreciation of diversity, but a collective conscious to make it inclusive.

Now one aspect of spontaneity and organic growth is that it should be possible to have keen debate, not dumb reverence for just great personalities; historical consciousness and self-reflection not adherence to supposedly timeless values; and a continual expansion of a societal canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who we are and what we care about. East Asian societies in its singular adherence to Confucian thinking has led to creating a hierarchical and often authoritarian social constructs which has curbed spontaneity. Now add to that, the sheer fixation on commerce and materialism becoming a prime pursuit, it is natural to see less emphasis on experimentation and spontaneity.

Culture is not a package of knowledge, attitudes and customs which can be parceled up, handed over to the child and then passed on intact to the next generation as seem to be the general thinking in East Asia. It has to take deep roots and often allowed to find its own flow.

There is a dialectic between culture and learning which in turn is a manifestation of spontaneity and growth. Creativity thrives when the social substratum has been enriched with diverse experiences and perspectives. And such diversities occasionally produce creative conflicts. East Asian societies have often shunned anything that could even remotely produce a conflict and placed a (undue) premium on compliance.

Now coming more specifically to creative minds (the Susan Boyle of the world), immersion in an environment of cultural ferment is more likely to fuel the selection process. Pablo Picasso is a case in point. He borrowed, stole, and assimilated his way and produced over 20,000 works of art in varying styles because there was a deep cultural ferment during his time. Being surrounded to by contemporary creators often inspires even marginally talented people to attain heights well above what they could possibly achieve in isolation. The individual genius often flowers through cultural interaction.

Creative people by their innate nature often tend to have wider interests and are open to more varied influence. They thrive on ambiguity and have varied interests. They are non conforming and independent minded. They have the capacity to expose themselves to a full range of cultural variants available in their milieu and then choose to adopt a unique subset that develops their talent. In East Asia such creative people do not have much opportunity and hence even if there existed such people, they tend to migrate to environments where their nature is better appreciated.

People have often asked me both seriously and causally about whether India or China can produce the next Google or Facebook. My answer is the same — The chances are very low, because while Indians or Chinese may be smart engineers; the kind of business thinking that needs to envision something novel is not there.

May 15, 2009

The true cost of learning

Filed under: Inspiration,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:21 pm
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Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

May 3, 2009

Pursuing excellence

I place a premium on pursuing excellence in all things I do. I have found it to be rewarding because there’s less competition in that pursuit.

Well, when I was coaching a senior executive on the importance of using that as a rallying call for his team I was reminded of this story that I listened to when I was a student.

A foreigner once visited a temple under construction where he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he noticed a similar idol lying nearby.

Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statues of the same idol?”


“No,” said the sculptor without looking up, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage.”


The gentleman examined the idol and found no apparent damage. “Where is the damage?” he asked.


“There is a scratch on the nose of the idol.” said the sculptor, still busy with his work.


“Where are you going to install the idol?”


The sculptor replied that it would be installed on a pillar twenty feet high.


“If the idol is that far, who is going to know that there is a scratch on the nose?” the gentleman asked.


The sculptor stopped his work, looked up at the gentleman, smiled and said, “I will know it.”

The desire to excel is exclusive of the fact whether someone else appreciates it or not. “Excellence” is a drive from inside, not outside. Excellence is not for someone else to notice but for one’s own satisfaction and growth

March 2, 2009

Warren Buffet– An enlightened sage!

Filed under: Business,Inspiration,Leadership — Subbaraman Iyer @ 12:12 am
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The surest test of a man’s character is his behavior when he has to deal with adverse circumstances and his admission of his errors or mistakes.

Warren Buffet often referred to as the sage of Omaha and considered to be the greatest investor of all times had his worst year. Berkshire Hathaway book value per share fell 9.6% in 2008 its biggest decline ever. The company also reported its fifth year-over-year quarterly decline. The $117 million quarterly gain  in the Q4 2008 is a 96% drop from Q4 2007 $2.9 billion in fourth-quarter income.

Despite the poor results,  the company’s book-value performance in 2008 still far outpaced the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, which fell 37% last year, including dividends, as well as hedge funds, which last year averaged about an 18% decline.

The share price is actually revealing and the share price has dropped 32% in 2008 and about 19% in 2009 beating the S&P marginally.

In his characteristic humble way, Warren Buffet in his annual letter to the shareholders said:

“During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. … Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.”

For  the richest man on the planet to admit that he was dumb should teach all of us lessons about humility and the fallibility of human judgment. I have long been an admirer of the Warren Buffet’s wisdom, but now with this humility, he truly is not just a Sage, but an Enlightened Sage.

Coming after Alan Greenspan’s admission of shock that markets didn’t work, it only goes to show the ultimate measure of one’s greatness — Admitting one’s mistakes.

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February 23, 2009

The teacher’s calling

Filed under: Inspiration,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:21 am
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Some have taught you formulas, others teach you to solve problems.
Some have taught you the names, others have taught you to question and learn.
Some have taught you to paint, others have taught you to see.
Some have taught you the scale, others have taught you music.

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August 28, 2008

Dr. Abdul Kalam ignites Singapore

Filed under: Inspiration — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:29 pm
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Dr. Abdul Kalam — Eminent scientist and ex President of India, whose lessons on managing failures, I found valuable visited Singapore recently. I attended his talk on Dynamics of National Development at the CII – IBF forum and the entire lecture can be found here.

Several things that he spoke about, inspired me. The thing about righteous living and the role of the primary school teacher in addition to the parents in inculcating righteous behavior brought tears to my eyes for its simplicity and profound thought. He made the entire audience recite the wonderful yet simple poem on Righteousness which goes as follows:

Where there is righteousness in the heart
There is beauty in the character.
When there is beauty in the character,
there is harmony in the home.
When there is harmony in the home.
There is an order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation,
There is peace in the world.”

This reminds me of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem..” Where the mind is without fear..”

We have had philosophers and pragmatists. Yet very few have lived a life of great achievements and be a pragmatic philosopher with another big vision of igniting young minds.

Dr. Kalam, You are undoubtedly God’s gift to India and humanity at large.

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