Thursday, December 31, 2009

The myth of "a self-made man"

I wish to welcome the new year 2010 with a sobering thought! Hence this post.

Many first-generation successful people across the world are often showered with the typical "Oh, he is a self-made man. We are so proud of him." This typically happens with people who have not had a family history of 'success' in the same field. This showering of praise is, in fact, so typical and regular, that people start getting accustomed to it, and some actually start believing it, i.e. they start believing that they are "truly self-made".

Believe me - nothing is further from the truth. THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A TRULY SELF-MADE MAN in this world.

So, if there is nothing like purely self-made, what is the truth? Who are achievers then? Are their achievements not worth celebrating?

The truth is - we are all mere reflections of sum total of all effort that has gone into our making by tens, or maybe hundreds of other individuals who are part of our lives. Our family, relatives, community and friends. Each one of them shapes a certain part of our personality, and without knowing it, we start owning it as if "we" built it in the first place! These individuals who affect our lives, are in turn, a product of many more such individuals who affected them, and so on. It's a really long chain!

The more successful you are, the more "polished" a reflection you are of the sum total of this aggregate effort of others. (Yes, this means that your effort is going into shaping others, at the same time.)

What kind of efforts go into the shaping of us, as human beings? I feel 4 most important factors are:

  1. Aggregate Human Evolution Effort - Lacs and lacs of humans have lived and died before us, and their entire learnings have gotten codified in some or the other format into us. Yes, "into us". There are two basic ways this codification happens - genes, and memes. Genes are the biological tools through which eons of cumulative group learning of mankind is passed onto the coming generations .. so like it or not - your parents' genes that were passed onto you, had eons of wisdom gathered at the cost of millions of human lives. Similarly, cultural learnings that are passed onto us, are memes. They are as profound, if not more, than genes. So we find that right from birth, we are inescapably tied to our past - and our personalities and character have strong links to everything that's preceded us. Of course, rationalists often contest this view, finding it too demeaning to accept. But I am sure of the importance of this singularly important fact - we are but just a reflection of our past humanity. Interestingly, this "toll tax" paid by humanity through the deaths of millions of humans by diseases (over millennia) has resulted in the fantastic immune system we carry within our bodies. To find out what happens without it, just watch the Hollywood blockbuster "War of the worlds". So, full credit for these basic codes (which we simply inherit without any effort) goes to our ancestors, not us.
  2. Deep Cultural Impact - We did not invent the alphabet, did we? Someone else did. That "someone" was not "one", but "a society" or "a series of societies". All we are doing today is enjoying the rich dividends of not being born at that point in time in history when the alphabet was still evolving. We have inherited the refined and fully evolved alphabet from our forefathers and we start learning it as a matter of fact, from our nursery and KG standards. To understand what we would be without this unique advantage, imagine your situation if you had no alphabet to learn in your early years, but were told to invent one. 99% of us would have died illiterate, trying to climb trees or eke out a living from the caves! So, full credit for this advantage that is conferred upon us goes to our ancestors, and not us. (I use the word Deep to connote the immensity of time that it took to develop). Yes, this logic naturally can be extended further, and we can clearly see that a hundred years from now, our grand-grand-children will be enjoying the fruits of our labour - imagine what Facebook and Orkut would have evolved into by then, and just visualise what medical science would have become by then! Do you really think you will want our grand-grand-children to take full credit of science and technology's state of affairs as it will exist then? Naturally not! A lot of that will be owed to you, the generation that's evolving it today, using the building blocks left for us by those who preceded us.
  3. Deep Scientific Impact - The alphabet and the seemingly basic cultural memes are elementary tools that help us stand up in modern society as "humans". But there are refined versions of these tools, like scientific theories and facts that help us evolve really fast as "modern complex humans" able to live in a technological society. You may take pride in your scores and marks in the school tests and college exams, but who designed the theories you are using so effortlessly? Did you invent ANY ONE of these? Or even a part of any one of these? NO. It's a one-in-a-million chance that YOU will invent/discover anything of lasting value to mankind. Yes, your contribution will help things improve incrementally, but chances are rare that you will do something that totally changes things. Individually, we all are pretty feeble creatures. Our wonder lies in our cumulative wisdom, the sparks amongst us that shine so strong that they illuminate everyone around, howsoever mediocre. Albert Einstein famously said - "All I have done is stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me and look farther afield than would have been possible had I done it all by myself." So it is true that all we do is take what is already available in society, make it our own (by paying a price - time or money we spend) and move on claiming full "ownership" of that knowledge. But that knowledge is not ours! Even copyright and patent-holders are not truly the owners of what they have made. Come to think of it! A significant part of their incomes must be donated to charity as a mark of respect for the generations (that came earlier) and contributed towards the basic tools that enabled these people to build something bigger and better. Could Google have existed without the alphabet, the University system, the decimal system, the microprocessors, the legal system, and the pioneers of the algorithms? Sergei and Larry are lucky they had all of that handed over to them on a platter while they were growing up.
  4. Immediate Societal Acceptance - no man (and woman) is anything or anybody unless the existing society accepts his/her creation and applauds it. So the brutal truth is - no matter how good you think you are, if others do not think so, and express so, you are a nobody! So who makes whom here? Are we making "ourselves" or are others making us? Anyone rude enough to feel he has made his own destiny, is missing the whole point. Steve Jobs is the king of the corporate world only because we think he is uber-cool, not because he thinks so.
These are humbling thoughts. But they are helpful. They help us understand our limits, and the very nature of our own existence. Intertwined destinies.

So if all this is correct, why do people not see it this way? Not anyone's fault really. We humans are so caught up in our day-to-day affairs of existence, that it is very difficult for most of us to see the bigger picture that lies ahead. So forget about the big picture that lies behind! Just pick up the newspapers on first of January 2010 and see the headlines - they all will talk of "inventing the future" in the next 10 years. Very few will talk about how we reached here (that will have no value for advertisers!). Nothing wrong with that. This is human nature. We always look ahead, and it is too much to expect people to keep remembering the past!

Well, so does Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots fame) deserve all the success he has? Does Aamir Khan deserve it? Yes, they do, but the primary reason they are sooooo successful is that they delved deep into what existed already (themes, concepts, learnings, thoughts, people, processes...) and dug up things more intensely than most others did. And then they connected these seemingly disparate pieces so well, that it all added up to something fantastic. But even they wouldn't be what they are, without "us" - their fans! So there.

Honestly, I can guarantee that there are at least ten more Rajkumar Hiranis out there who are more talented than "the" Rajkumar Hirani, but they never got the chance, the break, or the good luck to showcase themselves. Same holds true for Sandeep Manudhane as well.

So, should we lose all internal motivation, now that we have read all this? Not at all. Human history has been one of continuous striving. From the Egyptian pyramids to the Harappan civilisation, and Alexander's conquests to the European Renaissance.. we always strive no matter what. Our destiny is tied with this inner urge to strive. And the "achievers" amongst us those who have this sense of striving exhibited publicly the strongest. Yes, if we agree with what's written here, then we will surely feel a "different sense" of accomplishment every time now. We will not ascribe 100% credit of our successes to ourselves, but to the "collective ourselves", and I think that'll be a fairly good idea, given the modern context of global cynicism and chaos!

I know this post will force a lot of "achievers" to shift in their chairs, but I wrote what I strongly feel, and will love hearing critical comments! (Will more than love hearing praises, as this was a self-made blogpost. Ha ha!)

Cheers - have a wonderfully positive year 2010 ahead.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aal izz well !

Saw the season bollywood blockbuster "3 Idiots" yesterday. Here are my observations titled under The Good, and The Bad! This post does not detail the whole movie plot/sub-plots (which you can check on Wikipedia) but only my observations. So this post will be useful only for those who have seen the movie :-)
Before you begin, please remember I am an IIT Delhi graduate, and an educationist for 17 years. These were precisely the theme elements of this movie.

The Good

  1. The youthfulness of the theme is refreshing. Young faces (almost adolescentish), fresh dialogues, fresh new vocabulary, peep inside a leading engineering college's supposed daily life.. all make for a good combination.
  2. Aamir Khan is superb. His simplicity in carrying out his role, aptly supported by Madhavan and Sharman is enough to keep you glued to your seats.
  3. The desire of the Director Rajkumar Hirani to give a strong social message through slickly crafted movies is worth applauding. Given his talent, he could have easily made slicker commercial flicks that would draw in more money without any social message(s). But he has ensured he keeps churning out movies with a message. Good work sir! All strength to you.
  4. Humour! Since I am a humour freak, I loved the mature sense-of-humour used throughout the movie. Quite dangerous on some instances, although!
  5. The simple message - teach what is direct, understandable and usable - is something I have always practised and hence could relate to, and appreciate.
  6. The human values portrayed deserve an applause - help otherse even if they have nothing to offer / be grateful to those who helped you / have a sense of humour in tough situations / when it's action time, don't dither / judge people by their character, not the price of brands they can afford
  7. "Aal izz wayle" is a superb theme! It is very refreshing, very entertaining, and very very positive. All is well here!
  8. I liked that though they pulled punches on the Director ViruS, but they never really "insulted" him in any way. They stopped short of that always. (The urinating scene is open to controversial interpretations)
The Bad

  1. Display of a ragging scene as part of initiation into the first year of engineering, is not a good idea. Ragging is a punishable offence, and the Supreme Court of India has been exercised on this matter for long enough now for filmmakers to understand the importance of not taking any chances of portraying it in their movies, howsoever mature, for the danger of trivialising the issue.
  2. Use of some objectionable Hindi words was overdone. I think they could have done with a 50% cut in the use of such words. When watching with kids, it gets uncomfortable.
  3. The whole idea of Aamir Khan joining ICE to help his guardian father's incapable son get a degree surrogately, is objectionable. It significantly dents other positive moral virtues being preached in the movie.
  4. The movie's ending balances Chatur's successful corporate career with Rancho's highly successful scientific career. There is a slight hint of disparagement towards "primary school teachers" in the sequence, and the message anyway is difficult to understand at that point in time.
  5. Drinking liquor is shown as a regular and quite-a-normal affair. That's pretty dangerous, and it may send a signal to many! Pia's drunken outpouring is explainable though.
  6. The quality of Hostel infrastructure shown in pretty unrealistic. I remember by IIT Delhi hostel toilets - aarrgh!
  7. The idea that those who cram and crack college exams was portrayed well, but got overdone. I mean, do students really distract others before exams so their grades can improve, using tactics shown in the movie? (I know, I know the Director reserves creative freedom, but it stretches the imagination a tad too much for people like me who have seen all this at close quarters).
  8. Rancho's suggestion that grades should not be publicly displayed is a good idea, but in India, it will not work. A better idea is to display only roll numbers and grades, and not names. That will be a good balance between the needs of transparency and decency.
  9. For the point no.8 above, the argument given by Rancho that when you visit a Doctor, and he finds your protein levels are low (something like that), does he show it on TV? But this is wrong logic. We are not competing against 200 more people in protein tests. So..
  10. Three idiots were seen driving a scooter on streets of Delhi (I'm right?) without wearing helmets. A seriously wrong portrayal!  (though I totally agree with Rancho's driving Raju's ailing father facing an emergency to the hospital alongwith Pia on the same scooter).
  11. The whole message of the movie got garbled at the end (at least as far as I am concerned) when Rancho turns out to be a great inventor / scientist and hence checkmates Chatur's claims to superior material success implying his methods being better. I would have been happier if Rancho was a school teacher encouraging his students to invent/discover things as they wished, and then bravely would counter Chatur's claims to material success being better.
  12. Corporate recruiters will generally not hire you if you tell them that you are on a wheel-chair because you were rusticated for an unmentionable act and then tried to commit suicide. The graciously magnanimous recruiters shown are a dream for all colleges! Ha ha
Before I close, here are the really hilarious moments

  • "Tum Gujarati logon ke khane itne khatarnak kyon hote hain?" (why do you Gujaratis have such dangerously named foods?) -  Dhokla, Fafda, Khakhra, Thepla ..
  • "What? Pia Chanchad? No no.. I won't change my surname after marriage!"
  • "What? Pia Wangdu? No no.. I won't change my surname after marriage!"
  • "Millimeter, go get this from the Director's Office.. here is the key" (and both the Director and Aamir throw a key towards Millimeter.. Aamir's is the duplicate stolen one for which he has just been punished!)
  • "I was born at 3:15 and at 3:16 my destiny was pronounced by Dad. Mera beta Engineer banega!"
  • The politician is laughing heartily when Chatur is speaking out his crammed speech with all invectives inserted.. but the moment the joke is on him, the politician gets upset, and leaves!
So turns out education is a fairly complex thing, with everyone having their ideas about how to revolutionise the whole system, redefine the whole concept and reinvent the way the world should work! Strength to everyone, my Lord, strength to everyone.

And yes, I hate the popcorns priced at Rs 50, 70 and 100! Come on multiplexes, days of super-profit mongering ought to be over!  (the problem is - with kids, you can't even say No. Ha ha)

Friday, December 25, 2009

The great turning point!

Turns out 2009 was a great turning point. A culmination of several mega trends worldwide, this year saw a decisive shifting on many fronts. As news of various events, big and small, made their way to eager ears, the sensitive ones could pick rumblings of bigger trends to follow. Decisive trends.
Let me summarise my learnings from the year that’s folding up, and my understanding of what the next year, and decade hold in store for us.

1) Unipolarity is dead. Long live G-2
The singular superpower of this world – the US – finally acknowledged that it is no longer capable of running the world single-handedly. This capitulation was prompted by its economic collapse and consequent shaming (in front of the whole world), and its loss of confidence on its ability to innovate enough to pull itself (and the world) out of a recession, which threatened to turn into a depression. The US openly touted the idea of a G-2 that suddenly (and maybe unhappily for China) uplifted China from a “developing” to a “superpower” status! The mandarins in Beijing must have been shocked to see such a rapid surrender of this singular status by the US, irrespective of a conciliatory President in the Oval office. Anyway, they accepted it gladly, and are now discovering that there is a big price one needs to pay for superpower status – humility, decency and willingness to help those in need. These aren’t exactly traits Beijing is reputed for. So expect lots of incongruous and asymmetric statements and actions in the coming year, as the new world order settles and finds an equilibrium. I do not expect it to be smooth, neither do I expect it to be hassle-free. It’s not guaranteed either!

2) Business on the back-foot

The amazing liberty taken by the investment bankers in finest of US firms led to the sub-prime collapse. That in turn led to a wholesale bashing of the ideology of capitalism itself. Although that is a bit too much, but a world where 1 billion go to bed hungry each day, it was only expected. All the more, as the spillover from Wall Street to Main Street this time was much quicker, and more deleterious. So we are truly globalised now! What happens in the US banks affects us locally, almost everywhere in the world. Due to this sudden (12 months is surely sudden!) credibility crisis for capitalism’s founding principles, there is an environment of chaos and disbelief all around. Businesses and Business-leaders are stunned. Unable to believe that they could be so easily within the reach of something so pernicious, they are now slowly struggling to get their act together. Helped in a great measure by the relentless and unimaginable size bailouts offered by various governments, business has managed to save the façade from completely crumbling. A smiling face has been retained, while the back office got taken over by the governments. None of them (business and government) is eager to let it continue this way, and it is a matter of time before most bailouts result in either total collapse of the organization, or repayment of the bailout funds. The second is more likely. So we learnt some really good lessons here – a) you swing the needle too much towards the liberty side of the scale, and you degenerate capitalism into debauchery, b) governments are no longer willing to sit and watch industries die, even if that means pumping in unheard of amounts of monies into corporations, and c) business has to now work all over from scratch to regain its glory days.
I distinctly remember that through the early years of 2000s, companies like Lehman, GE and AIG used to be taught in B-schools are paragons of virtue and positive aggression. Their leaders seem to have forgotten that there is a limit to risk-taking, and healthy business demands reining in the testosterone at the right moment. Tut tut.
The coming decade will be a struggle for business to gain its social legitimacy all over again. I am confident that they will do it ultimately. While most companies anyway remain low-profile and generally good for society, the really big ones will have to go out of the way (can’t remain low profile that way!) and ensure that the broken edifices are rebuilt beautifully, ethically and convincingly.

3) It’s my life no more!
An amazing (and almost oxymoron like) social situation is evolving. The explosion of social media (blogs, twitter, orkut, facebook..) has created unlimited scope for micro-cultures to flourish. And at the same time, consumerist consumption driven by the large-scale (almost global) creation of such micro-cultures is driving climate change that is unacceptable to all. So you have a peculiar situation – Capitalism gave us the fantastic change to live life kingsize by enjoying almost every material thing we could imagine, and in the process, we ended up creating so much carbon (and greenhouse gases) that the world’s future is at stake. I heard someone say “It’s my life.” Good, but no more sir! Your actions (of consumption) are leaving carbon footprints on the environment, and hence it is totally unacceptable to everyone. But where does one begin to cut things down? Where does one rationally understand and take action? Where do nations come together and decide and act? All these are the grand questions that mankind is left to find answers to. If not solved properly, this century may well prove to be the last happy century for man as we have known him. It’s the tipping point, truly. And all of us, in our lifetimes, will see a large part of this story unfold before us.
So suddenly, post COP15, there is a worldwide sense of discomfort and disbelief that nations are unable to actually agree to specific goals that can be made to work. In our hearts, we surely believe things will work out (should work out), but the real decisions are still to be made. It is actually boiling down to the lifestyle issue, finally.

4) India undecided
Amidst all this noise and clutter and uncertainty, India seems to stand tall. Call it wisdom or lethargy, our policymakers never allowed India to fully integrate into the world economy. The benefit of that is there for everyone to see. We escaped narrowly! Our banks had minimal exposure to the lusty and lascivious sub-prime market of the US, and hence the ripple effect never hit us hard. Our recession mood (if you can call it) was largely due to secondary reasons – IT companies losing out on big new contracts due to shrinking budgets, big hikes in food prices locally, poor recruitment scene at leading campuses, government’s failure to create large-scale assets through big projects – and so on. Grudgingly, even China understands the important role that the juggernaut called India – 17% of world’s population – has to play in the global economy now. India, however seems unsure of its standing. Though we are assertive enough (we did not sign the NPT) and decent enough (we did not attack Pakistan post 26/11), our exact position needs to be recalibrated now. The world needs more precise definitions.
Remember, China is dead scared of India. President Hu Jintao applies his lathi everytime someone dares question his or the Party’s judgement. Indian leaders wield no such lathi. They are under the democracy scanner always. Despite this apparent lack of strength, Indian democracy goes from strength to strength. This makes India inherently much stronger than the monolithic but brittle Chinese polity. In the next decade, expect something dramatic to happen along those lines in China. History bears witness to the fact that when the democracy tide turns, no force is able to hold its pressure.

I find these times amazing! Since we are an integrated world now (at least online), the ripples travel really fast. I hope that mankind’s cumulative wisdom is able to hold itself really well, and that by 2100 AD, we would be on the route to eternal prosperity having contained the Capitalistic libido at reasonable levels, stabilized the population (at 9 billion) and with a sure agreement that space exploration and colonizing other worlds is our ultimate destiny. (What a thing to say in the middle of a world recession!)

I wish you the best for a great 2010 ahead. Success is a state of mind. If you have something valuable to offer the world, trust your instincts and go ahead. The world will reciprocate. Best of luck!