Subba’s Serendipitous moments

August 17, 2010

Commitments precede choices

Filed under: Business,Learning,Motivation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:16 pm
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Clayton Christenson’s address to the graduating class of HBS 2010 had pearls of timeless wisdom. I summarized his address with some comments in my blog post here.

All his wisdom is predicated on one simple and basic premise – that we all know our life’s purpose is known to us apriori. Once that life purpose is known, allocating resources and making trade-off decisions should come about systematically. That’s a well planned life.

But what about situations and people when we do not have enough clarity on the life’s purpose. There is an alternative approach as David Brooks seems to write in this wonderful piece. Thanks to Anand Srinivasan who brought this to my attention.

The starting point here is that life cannot be planned and there are too many unknowns. It is an unknowable landscape with all its interesting twists and turns. Sometimes the life purpose eludes many of us. David calls this the Summoned Life approach.

Here commitments precede choices. Commitments to family, nation, faith, cause etc. These defy many of the standard business metrics like returns, cost-benefit analysis and so on. While we are a product of choices, our deep commitments serve as a useful compass to make the choices.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation and most times it starts off with a rude wakeup call.

“At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.”

David puts this eloquently when he says: “For the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.”

In the lives that I have observed, both the Well Planned life and the Summoned Life can co-exist peacefully but there is bound to be a creative tension between the two. In my own personal life, the Well Planned life helped me to stay on course and avoid distractions. It gave me anchor and rooted me in values and principles. Trade-off decisions came to me naturally and quickly and I rarely felt paralyzed. But occasionally the Summoned Life due to the situational awareness helped me fine tune the choices based on some of the deep commitments that I myself didn’t know that existed in my consciousness.

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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.

January 4, 2010

Looking backward, looking forward

Filed under: Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:34 pm
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Having lived all my life on the edge, I am kind of used to the vicissitudes of life and have taken it in remarkable stride. By all standards 2009 was a very difficult year as I found myself helpless or vulnerable at some very crucial moments. Now, 2010 appears to be challenging — a new environment and a different set of expectations. And since challenge is something that I have always thrived on, it should be exciting.

Last couple of weeks I had no human contact or access to an electronic network. I was practically shut out from the outside world. It was rich solitude barring the chatter and noise from the deeper self. It gave me time to build new perspectives and perhaps shed some old ones.


Clearly, five key passions either individually or some combination has governed my life: the longing for understanding and love, the urge to learn constantly and pass the learning to others, the drive for personal excellence and to build excellence around me, the deep empathy for the underprivileged and finally a sense of fairness to others even in the most intense conflict.


These five passions have driven me to unknown stations in life, thrown me amidst deep chaos, and yet helped me emerge stronger and more rooted to life, growth and humanity.


I longed for understanding and love, because at a deep level, I am a loner despite my extrovert self. I am a solitary thinker and learn independently. Understanding relieved the loneliness and the occasional feeling of love moderated the rebel in me.


Learning came naturally though I despised formal learning approaches. I was always intrigued by the ambiguous and the dichotomous, the interface areas between two disciplines and the process of discovery . That explains the number of posts on learning here. I also cannot contain my enthusiasm to share what I have discovered.


The pursuit of excellence served as an elixir for growth and discovery. I have often got upset when some people routinely chose to be mediocre without even examining the trade-offs.


While the above helped me soar, the sufferings of the deprived and the underprivileged held me to the ground. Their pain often brought tears to my eyes. I could empathize with their state and reach out to them. Whenever I saw them struggle them to break out of their circumstances, they inspired me. I just wanted to be a catalyst in some way to help them in their endeavor.


A sense of fairness has always governed every action even if I have to deal with conflict. Perhaps I am intrinsically cognizant of the law of karma!


As I said earlier I passed through some big challenges last year and in a way felt compelled to review my passions. The solitary sojourn was a great opportunity. I realized that the law of unintended consequences applies to personal passions as well. Delving deeply, I discovered the following:


I have been naive that by discussing people’s weaknesses and/or the system’s weaknesses and showing them a better path, I would contribute to a better individual, community or organization. I have learnt now that people have interests, beliefs, biases and prejudices that, once firmly entrenched, are not easily dislodged– and certainly not by logic or even by evidence. My role is to do my best, understand my boundaries and respect their mental orientation


Yes, people do change their minds, but experience has more influence than even the best argument.


Helping people change their minds is more art than science. As a change artiste, I need to have a lot more tools in my repertoire.

Many people would rather live with a problem they can’t solve rather than adopt a solution which (they think) is risky.

Pragmatism often decides people’s choices. And sometimes the pursuit of excellence is too high a price to pay for pragmatism. The same is true for honesty and sincerity. My role at best is to highlight the tradeoffs and not champion my values.


I just have to accept that the longing for understanding especially the philosophical and emotional dimensions of an issue combined with the pursuit of excellence have led me to be overbearing. Some have benefited, but quite a few have been bruised. I am only fortunate that I managed to keep this streak under control whenever I wore the counselor’s mantle or took on a coaching responsibility.


For me, the passions– no matter how contentious or futile– has a stand-alone meaning. It is called freedom. As I start the new year I hope to improve my awareness and understand the boundary conditions better.


Hopefully the world will follow Kahlil Gibran’s dictum: To understand the heart and mind of a person look not at what he has already achieved (or failed), but at what he aspires to do.

October 1, 2009

Swami Viekananada and John Rockefeller

Filed under: Business,Learning,Perspective,Stories — Subbaraman Iyer @ 2:07 pm
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When visiting Chicago, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the house of a businessman who was an associate of John D. Rockefeller. Many times had Mr. Rockefeller heard his friends talking about an extraordinary and wonderful Hindu monk, and many times he had been invited to meet Swamiji but always refused.

At that time Rockefeller was not yet at the peak of his fortune, but was already powerful and strong-willed, a hard man to advise. One day, on a whim, the millionaire briskly walked through the door and said he wanted to see the Hindu monk. Swami Vivekananda, who was behind his writing table, did not even lift his eyes when the magnate entered the study room. In their ensuing conversation, Swami told Rockefeller secrets about his past that Rockefeller alone knew. Then, Swami boldy explained that God had given him all his wealth in order that he might have an opportunity to help people and do good.

Annoyed that someone dared to tell him what to do, Rockefeller stormed out. Coming back a week later, he brought plans to donate an enormous sum of money to charity. This was Rockefeller’s first large donation to the public welfare. “Well, there you are,” he said to Vivekananda, “You can thank me for it.” Swamiji then said softly, “No sir, it is for you to thank me.”

source: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 9

September 20, 2009

How to find meaning?

Last week as I was involved in a deep discussion with a good friend of mine, (I also happened to coach him in a difficult professional transition) I had an epiphany. He asked me whether I found the meaning of life.

The question was sudden without any preamble and as he looked deeply in my eyes, I discovered that I have been in a similar quest perhaps all my life. I only don’t know whether I have finished finding the meaning of my own existence.

Meaning is not something that you find as you normally try to find a location in a map. It is not something that you look for as you would for an item in a supermarket.

It is something that one has to build in one’s life. The elements to build it is already there in one’s consciousness. It is built out of one’s own past, out of one’s own talent and aspirations for oneself. It is based on the values that one has developed and what one stand for. It is based on the things that one believes in and out of the things that one cares about in a deep sense.

Now, each of us have to take the elements and combine that into a unique pattern that will resonate with oneself. The discovery of that unique pattern could take years. Once discovered, it becomes precious.

Meaning guides a person and sometimes becomes the raison d’être for one’s existence. It is nourishing and provides the dignity to one’s life.

I also discovered a strange connection between the outcomes of events and the meaning of life. A material success which doesn’t resonate with the meaning in one’s life seems hollow, superficial and doesn’t give much joy. A success that’s congruent with one’s meaning in life gives fulfillment.

Has anyone else found meaning of life? How did you all find it?

I would be curious to know.

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.


July 27, 2009

When intuition outsmarts rationality

In October 2001, a fire crew was fighting a fire in a disused bingo hall in Leicester in the UK. Even though it was big, the fire chief decided it was safe enough to send the crew into the building.

They were starting to make progress in knocking the fire down when the fire chief decided something was wrong, and ordered his team out of the building. The team protested, unwilling to give up the progress they had made. But the fire chief insisted and as they exited the building it exploded in a massive fireball. If the decision to evacuate hadn’t been made the entire team would have been killed.

It turns out that the fire was one of the rarest and most dangerous phenomenon in firefighting – a backdraft. The fire chief had never experienced a backdraft before, he just knew that something was wrong and they needed to get out. In the ensuing investigation it turns out there were three things that were unusual: the smoke was more orange than usual, air was rushing into the building rather than out of it, and the fire was unusually quiet. The fire chief was right in his decision, he just didn’t know why at the time.

Well, all is well, that ends well.

But let’s take a moment and reflect what could have happened to the same event in a different set of circumstances. Assume that the fire chief was not the decision maker but he had to refer the decision to his boss.

There was clearly no evidence that something unusual was underway and that the teams were in disagreement with the fire chief. The teams were actually making progress and were engaged in a great endeavor to put out the fires. Normal rational thinking would have demanded that the boss would overrule the fire chief. The firemen would continue to fight the fire and the entire team would have been killed.

An investigation would have ensued and the decision would have been termed as rational and the whole thing written off as a terrible tragic accident.

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

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