Subba’s Serendipitous moments

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.

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.


June 18, 2009

What ails Singapore entrepreneurs?

I am not talking about the entrepreneur who sells red bun and starts yet another coffee shop. I am talking about technology entrepreneurs who create products, services, generate jobs and stimulate growth.

Singapore is probably the only country in the planet which has a Ministry of Entrepreneurship staffed by eminent and scholar Ministers. The first to head the Ministry in 2003 was Raymond Lim a Rhodes and a Colombo Plan scholar. Subsequently it was headed by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan for a very short time before Lee Yi Shyan took over.

Despite such scholar Ministers, Singapore has had limited success as entrepreneurs and very less of technology and new media entrepreneurs. The Government has put in all kinds of incentives and generous funding.

My own assessment after having done some serious thinking is as follows:

  • Few angel investors or Series A investors
  • Start ups don’t collaborate and create partnership networks themselves
  • Start ups don’t think global – they depend too much on the local market
  • Big Singapore companies are not encouraging about start ups
  • Start ups build business the traditional way – Not disrupting anyone
  • They try to copy other successes blindly
  • Clearly no game changing ambition
  • Less idealistic, hence do not get the new business models.
  • Excessive focus on making money quickly – No big picture or long term picture in mind
  • Focus on sales, not on a compelling value proposition
  • Start ups don’t even do simple, free marketing – blogs, viral marketing etc.

James Chan has some interesting observations and I would agree with all of them.

Does anyone have anything to add to this?

Isn’t is a paradox that we were once a nation of entrepreneurs? Our forefathers from China and India arrived here without any support with barely to survive and set up businesses. Even today the Chinese and Indians have successfully set up businesses not just in their own countries, but all over the world.

Where and how have we lost the spirit?

May 3, 2009

The negative side of positive thinking

A positive thinking mind is an advantage. But an intense positive thinking mind bordering on the “pathological” often has negative or even severe repercussions. I have had the occasion to witness firsthand the perils of excessive positive thinking recently as I coached someone who has been having severe performance problems at work which has spilled over to his personal life as well. He was reluctant to make the hard changes that he had to; and often believed that thinking positive can solve his problems.

Positive thinking in this case only obfuscated the issue and clouded his judgment. In his case it was getting obsessive, but I have noticed that people tend to slip into a denial mode even with less intensity of positive thinking.

I am all for positive thinking, but it has to be balanced with the repercussions of failure. I have noticed that people try to shut out their fear of failure, or have an obsessive attachment to their desired result and rationalize that by having positive thoughts, they can accomplish it. Such an overwhelming positive thinking can be disastrous.

Positive thinking has been reduced to a cliche. Things are alarming when companies are investing more training dollars on motivational speakers than improving skills and competencies.

The notion that success is often achieved by attitude than aptitude is a reproach to rational thinking. It erodes the reverence for hard work, talent, diligence and other elements which are necessary for human progress.

Sometimes such delusional optimism can be dangerous. The recent architects of the sub prime crisis and the global financial meltdown are just a case in point.

Positivity and positive thinking are about optimism, self-confidence and diligence; not about micawberism, brashness, or pulling-a-fast-one and not living in a make believe world. Positivity with disregard to cost, risk and proper planning is day-dreaming — or worse setting oneself to disappointment, shock and even trauma.

Due caution does not destroy positive thinking but tempers it as fire does steel.

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

April 1, 2009

Emotion and speech

A saint asked his disciples, ” Why do people shout at each other when they are angry?”

The disciples thought for a while. One of them said, ‘Because we lose our calm, we shout for that.’

“But, why shout when the other person is just next to you?” asked the saint. “Isn’t it possible to speak to him or her with a soft voice? Why do people shout at a person when they are angry?”

Disciples gave answers but none satisfied the saint.

Finally the saint explained, ‘When two people are angry at each other, their hearts move away a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The more angry they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other through that great distance.’

Then the saint asked, ‘What happens when two people fall in love? They don’t shout at each other but talk softly, why? Because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is very small…’

The saint continued, ‘When they love each other even more, what happens?

They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that’s all. That is how close two people are when they love each other.’

MORAL: When you argue, do not let your hearts get distant, do not say words that distance each other more, else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.

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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June 7, 2007

Some ingredients for success

Filed under: Perspective,Winning,Winning strategies — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:44 pm
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To be able to carry money without spending

To be able to bear an injustice without retaliating

To be able to keep on the job until it is finished

To be able to do one’s duty even when one is not watched

To be able to accept criticism without letting it whip you.

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