Published on 2-5-2009 As I rise to speak today, we all know that times are tough and good jobs are not easy to come by. It must be a bit disappointing for a graduating class in this year.

Published on 2nd May, 2009

As I rise to speak today, we all know that times are tough and good jobs are not easy to come by. It must be a bit disappointing for a graduating class in this year. Nevertheless, I congratulate all the graduating students, the teachers and the parents on this very memorable and wonderful occasion. After months of hard and dedicated work, today many of you emerge from this top-class institute to seek your career, your fortunes, and fame outside—in other words, you seek success.

Success is elusive and never seems easy to chase. So the question arises, what is success? Is success an object to be pursued?

I have two unusual messages for you.

  • First, that success is a thief whom you should not pursue nor whose company you should seek.
  • Second, while working hard on developing your experience and career, do not take yourself too seriously.

Success is a thief

Success is a thief. That is why success is not something to be pursued. This thief brings only unhappiness to those who pursue it. The best chance of capturing this elusive thing called success is to look within us. It may be hiding, but its right there! However, almost all of the 6.5 billion people on earth try looking for success outside of them.

The problem is that they think of success in others’ context. That is why they relentlessly pursue the acquisition of things that others can readily see—wealth, status, and recognition. Such success is a thief.

A thief has three characteristics: first, a thief is not recognized by you as being a thief; second, he robs you of what you have without your realizing it at that time; third, a thief leaves you feeling very foolish after you have been robbed.

So it is with success. You assume that visible symbols of success makes you happy, but such success increases the chances that you will be robbed of your happiness, and further, after losing your happiness, you feel foolish that you have lost your success.

Consider the reality around us. A consulting and accounting firm called KPMG conducted a Fraud Survey in 2008 among the largest private and public companies. An incredible 80% opined that fraud is a problem. To those who doubt the concerns about ubiquitous fraud, further evidence comes from the Satyam episode which has hogged newsprint and airwaves for the last several weeks.

Charles Michael Schwab was born in 1862. At age 35, he became President of US Steel, later Carnegie Steel. He was big, rich and famous. He built an ambitious 75-roomed private house, Riverside, for $7 million. He lost all his wealth in the 1929 crash and died in 1939 with a debt of $300,000.

Howard Hopson was born in 1882. By the early 1920s, he put together AGECO, an association of electric and gas companies in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He then indulged in what turned out to be shenanigans. He faced trial in 1940 and died in Brooklyn sanatorium.

Richard Whitney was born into a wealthy Boston family in 1888. In 1912, he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and soon became a hugely successful speculator with a lavish lifestyle. He got into trouble, borrowed to get out of the trouble, then embezzled. He even stole $800,000 from his own father-in-law. By 1938, he was tried and imprisoned in Sing Sing prison. He died at age 88, penniless and banned from stock-trading.

All of these ‘successful’ people lost the perspective of context.

The plain fact is that success has to be seen within a context, and that context is your own self, not outside of your self. Strip away the context, and you see it completely differently.

Recall the film, Atonement. Briony Tellis lives on the family estate with her mother. Her sister, Cecilia, and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie, have an uncertain relationship. Briony watches a sequence of interaction between Cecilia and Robbie through the window of her room and jumps to a conclusion that her sister was having an affair with Robbie. The rest of the film is all about how Briony got it all wrong—because she missed the context.

The plain truth is that success means being happy within yourself.

To most of mankind, success means having wealth and status which others can be impressed with. But the trick of showing something is not to retain it. The blue object looks blue because the object sends back the blue wavelength of light and retains none of it. Similarly the successful person returns success and retains none of it.

If successful people want to do it right, they would have to do what golfer Gene Sarazen did. He was born in 1904 and died just 10 years ago, at age 95. During his lifetime, he became the first in the world to win all the four Grand Slam titles in golf. He won 38 PGA titles during the 1920s and 1930s. He played golf till the age of 92 and died with complete financial security.

Here is another anecdote about a successful person, a happy person. There was a young man, who was working in the Indian Army. He could not find meaning in his life. So he decided to commit suicide. Suddenly, he realized that his sister was to get married, so he decided to postpone his mission. In the meanwhile, he chanced on a book by Swami Vivekananda.

Somehow he got inspired. He took premature retirement from the army, collected Rs 65,000, and returned to his village in Maharashtra. He used the money to repair the village well, to close down liquor outlets and to mobilize public opinion for their own development. In a few years, his village was proclaimed a model village and he found a new meaning to his life.

The name of the village is Ralegaon Siddhi, and the person is Anna Hazare, decorated with Padma Bhushan for his pioneering work.  He found happiness within himself.

There is a great difference in the perception of success and happiness between the western and the Indian philosophical tradition.

In his book, Happiness: a history, Professor Darrin McMahon points out that the Greeks had contemplated this subject at length. They provided the compass for the western view of happiness. Socrates and Plato had held the view that virtue on its own was enough to secure our highest end. Aristotle rejected this view because someone might possess the highest virtue, but still suffer the worst evils and misfortunes. He accepted that factors over which we have no control play some role in determining happiness—birth, beauty, luck.

However, Indian philosophical tradition has never connected happiness with luck or fate. It argues that the aim of life is to have happiness and peace. The Vedanta says that instead of searching for happiness outside of oneself, one should look for infinite joy and peace within oneself. Sant Kabirdas also said that fools search for happiness and peace outside. Modern commentators have been consistent that external sense objects bring only temporary happiness. Infinite and everlasting happiness comes from within.

Just as the Himalayan musk deer tires itself by running around seeking the source of the fragrance, little realizing that the smell originates from its own navel, man too should search his own self.

I am not sure who wrote this line but it is wonderful:

“It is not what you gather, but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived”.

 Don’t take yourself too seriously

B-schools produce managers, who are supposed to be leaders. To be successful, leaders need to be a little self-obsessed and have a bit of narcissism: just a bit, but not too much. Therefore leaders have a tendency to take themselves too seriously. This can become a fatal flaw.

As they develop their career, the kind of mistakes that managers make is truly amazing; even more amazing are the mistakes made by successful managers after they have reached the heights of glory. They range from ignoring feelings of consumers or employees to acquiring the wrong companies despite advice to the contrary.  When you discuss case studies at the training courses, you cannot help wondering why such ‘dumb’ things were done by such accomplished and experienced characters as depicted in the case!

When someone talks about a ‘proven manager’, do not believe him. There is no person who fits that description.  You have to prove yourself all over again day after day, every single day of your career.  However, we tend to forget it, partly because we are constantly assailed with this talk about proven managers.

You don’t believe it? Talk to a headhunter. He will persuade you that he can find you proven managers. Read the job advertisements in the morning newspaper.  Often, they seek proven managers with a track record. The concept of the proven manager is deeply embedded in aspiring managers as well as potential employers.

There is a peculiar characteristic about human affairs, and this is true of management as well. When you are successful, it makes you feel that you know a lot and that you have a lot of experience. This may well be true. But soon, you start believing that you know almost everything worth knowing—and your behaviour starts to reflect this attitude.  It is then that the matching opposite characteristic manifests itself i.e. just as you begin to solve your next problem with the well-tried technique from your rich repertoire of ‘ideas that have worked’, everything begins to fail.

It is a bit like any sport, as soon as you have got it right, something happens to remind you that you have not!  Indeed, it is a lot like the story of life itself. You never know whether you have got it. And you spend a lifetime trying to understand what is going on!

The best way is to keep your head down and be humble about what you are doing and not take yourself too seriously. It is tough to do but is important. Here is something that reminds me every morning that I should not take myself too seriously.

A wall in my office is adorned with a framed ‘sculpture’ of phosphate-rich fossils from the bed of some mines in Morocco. It is formed of the teeth, bones and nails of animals that died 40-60 million years ago. It is very inspiring to see this every morning as it gives me a completely different perspective of time. Any temporary delusion that I am about to change the world by my decisions that day is immediately dispelled!

I got this piece during a visit to Morocco from the chairman of a company in the business of mining phosphate, beneficiating it into phosphoric acid and exporting it around the world. I became interested in the Mediterranean area. How did it get the dominant proportion of phosphate deposits in the world? What caused this unique geology to occur?

The First Eden by zoologist David Attenborough provided some facts. Any geography in the world would be unique but the Mediterranean is special because it is where mankind’s exploitation of the land began, and it has run its full cycle. For tens of millions of years, that arm of ocean had separated Europe from Africa.

Suddenly, some six million years ago, due to some geological action, the narrow gap between Africa and Spain closed up. Thus that arm of ocean dried out. It became roasting hot and almost lifeless. Likewise, on the eastern side, the connection from Africa to Arabia was open, and then closed due to a different set of geological actions. The result was that animals in one part could cross at certain times and were isolated at other times. Fish that could survive in a renewing sea died in a concentrated salt-water sea. The type of species that lived and died changed, leaving a lot of bone in that area, leading to the rich deposits.

I hope you will remember these two messages, first that success is a thief, who should not be your friend or your goal and second, that you should not take yourself too seriously. Good luck in your journey, my young friends.