Published on 8-8-2009 It is all of 45 years since I first stepped into Radhakrishnan hall at IIT Kharagpur as a student. Since then I have visited on and off. But today’s visit is special.

Speech by R. Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director, TATA Sons Ltd at the 55th IIT Kharagpur Convocation on 8th August, 2009

It is all of 45 years since I first stepped into Radhakrishnan hall at IIT Kharagpur as a student. Since then I have visited on and off. But today’s visit is special.

Thank you, Mr Chairman and Mr Director, for giving me the honor and pleasure of delivering the 55th convocation address.

Perhaps the only person who was at IIT when I joined and is present in the hall today is Prof Gitindra Saran Sanyal, my guru and my professor. As a devoted shishya then, now and forever, I first pay tribute to this iconic adivasi who has been in IIT since 1954. I doubt that anybody can match his record of attending all the 55 convocations.

Some ten years ago, I agreed to Prof Sanyal’s request to teach at the Vinod Gupta School of Management. He said, “Do not agree lightly and then forget about it. In our tradition, a promise given to a guru must be fulfilled—and remember, I am into my 70s!”

As a diligent shishya, I took a few days’ leave from my office to discharge my promise. Professor Sanyal amazed me by sitting on the front bench and attending all my lectures. “Just reciprocating what you did forty years ago,” he said with a twinkle.

His most enduring contribution has been his child-like warmth for the students, and the ability to connect with them even after so many years. I would even venture to suggest that he has achieved more through his connectivity with generations of students than through his well-acknowledged pedagogy and research here.

 I mention these facts not only to sing paeans for my old teacher but also importantly, to emphasize the enduring importance of relationships. Our life is like a train journey; each one of us steps into the train alone and will step off alone. Each one has a different journey experience and interacts with different people, with some more intimately than others.

It is true that the connections of mind among the people encountered impact each person; but it is the connections of heart that shape, who we are; we recall such connections with a lump in the throat or with a wistful eye. For example, the first-ever loss by this institute in the inter IIT meet occurred in Bombay in 1966 when I led the Kharagpur contingent. This is etched in my mind more strongly than the lessons from Theory of Machines by Sokolnikoff and Solonikoff!

I warmly recall the fierce difference and rivalry between Patel Hall and Nehru Hall; it resembled the difference between the leaders whose name those hostels bore. I feigned the more scholarly disposition of the people whose names my hostels bore—first, Radhakrishnan and later, Vidyasagar!

In 1966, I stood for election as Vice President of the Students’ Gymkhana. Somehow I managed to win. During the heady days of victory that followed, two notable incidents occurred.

The first incident was a visit to my room at Vidyasagar Hall by a contemporary. We had long been friends, being from the same school. After congratulating me warmly on the election result, he became emotional. He asked me to explain the difference between us: what caused me to win while he could not even consider contesting? He saw our difference through his lens of relationships.

“You have had stable relationships in the family and with friends for many years; I have had a drunk for a father and a whole host of related relationship difficulties to overcome.” I was shocked. I felt blessed for what I had, but I also felt deeply for my dear friend and thought about the incident a lot.

Human beings are a spaghetti of relationships. Over the years, I have realized that for advancement in one’s career and life, relationships are more important than skills and accomplishments. The hugely insightful Grant Study by George Valliant has shown that those who are happy and satisfied in their life are often those who have placed a high value on relationships and have maintained contact with siblings and friends from the past and present.

Engineering education rightly emphasizes the analytical; from my institute days, I recall that the curriculum perniciously dismissed the humanities and arts through excluding them. Every contemporary whom I have met has regretted this huge educational lacuna, which he tries to make up later in life.

So I hope that this graduating class will keep connected and also find the time to learn those wonderful things that the pressures and the demands of a technical syllabus might have excluded.

The second incident also occurred after the Gymkhana elections. Professor Rakshit, my head of department mildly rebuked me. He was a fair-complexioned, silvery-haired, scholarly-looking man with the reputation of being very serious about academics. In the corridor of the electronics department, he demanded to know of me why I had joined IIT—to become a serious student of electronics or to electioneer. He expressed his deep disappointment that I had chosen extra-curricular distraction over academic commitment through running for office, and worse, that I had won. I had no doubt, and still have no doubt, that he was driven by genuine love and concern for my future.

 The bottom line was that I was in a serious quandary; it mattered a lot to me how Prof Rakshit regarded me. Of course being Vice President would be a distraction. I had assumed that through extra work and dedication I could expand my horizons both as a student of electronics as well as of leadership in pursuit of my ambition of developing an industrial management career. Was I wrong? I was confused. Later in life I found my answer.

In life, you must enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy.

If you desire a career of leadership, then you must seek out development opportunities that suit your outlook and temperament. An incredible amount of personal development comes through stretching oneself; by accepting multiple challenges voluntarily. Such challenges compel you to hold two opposite ideas in your mind simultaneously, and yet be able to function.

While software and communications technology have delivered a lot to society, they should not delude you to believing that we live in an e-world. We live in a real world, a physical world! Learning, development and growth come from three sources:

  • personal self-awareness
  • building relationships with people
  • executing tasks

Today’s gadget-hungry, web-savvy young people should always remember that real jobs where you do things and relate with people contribute a great deal to shaping you.

 The stereotype shown in suiting advertisements and movies about the high-living and high-spending executive is completely mythical. Hence a word about fitness and health. It is in the first ten years after the working career begins that the greatest neglect of youthful health begins. Sportsmen stop playing sports, teetotalers drink alcohol, active youngsters sit on desk jobs, and starving hostel inmates eat rich foods.

You can convince yourself about the reasons for not exercising—no time, the peer pressure to socialize, the difficulty of a club membership, and logistics problems.  However even if these are valid, you can always go for a walk or do yoga!  There are absolutely no good reason for lack of fitness and exercise, other than personal indulgence and laziness.

While growing up in Calcutta, I joined a tennis coaching scheme at the Bengal Lawn Tennis Association. It was run and supervised by Dilip Bose, the Indian Davis Cup tennis star of the 1940s. He was a fiend for fitness. Before we could get our tiny hands around the racket, he would make us run around the South Club tennis courts ten times, do one hundred jumps with a skipping rope, and do another fifty sit-ups. We were too tired to play any tennis by the time all this was done. His message was that we could not be tennis players if we were not fit.

One day, Dilip Bose asked us,” How would you take care of your car if you were told that it would be the only car you would have for your whole life?” The answer was self evident; all of us kids said the same thing in chorus.

“Well, your body is the only car you will have for all your life. You cannot change it, so look after it like your only car,” he bellowed.

To a kid, that was a simple message to understand and to remember. I owe it to the late Dilip Bose that I grew to love exercise and tennis, both of which have been an inexhaustible source of pleasure, relaxation, character-building and fitness, all rolled into one bundle.

It is terrific to see health-conscious executives exercising and keeping fit. A leadership career is extremely stressful, and every young executive should work at managing that stress. Some are unlucky because they develop health problems without bringing it upon themselves. But others squander away their good health on the grounds that office work is stressful. Healthy and young people need not develop stressful social habits, deluding themselves that it is relaxing. Such a hectic lifestyle catches up after ten years.

My IIT tennis team-mate had been a State level champion. I used to wish I had his graceful ground strokes and his swing. When I met him after 40 years, we naturally spoke about tennis. “Oh, I gave up 20 years ago. I should have taken better care and played more regularly after college. I should have controlled some of my habits. I had to stop after a bypass surgery several years ago,” he said to my great regret, for he was such a lovely hitter of the ball.

I am not recommending a spartan lifestyle, far from it. Go out and enjoy life, youth comes only once. However, do listen to what your body is telling you and do not flog it to capacity.

Your good health is an asset on your balance sheet. Grow it, maintain it, but do not destroy it. It is the only opening asset you are given at the beginning of your life.

As you stand at the threshold of a mountain of opportunities, allow me to conclude with a word about society. You and I are blessed to have a top-class education. We have the opportunity to earn and live well. The world requires us to have the attitude of a giver, not of a receiver. What French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, said of fortunate people applies to us: “a handful of people gorged with luxuries while the starving multitudes lack the necessities of life.” The human instinct to acquire, enrich, and aggrandize is unlimited while the instinct to share, give and be humble is very, very limited.

That is why I have titled this speech, ‘What matters is not what you gather, but what you scatter.” I should recall what Pandit Nehru said in the constituent assembly about the elite, “…..the modern kings of industry who have greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the feudal aristocracy.”

It is in the attitude of giving and sharing that success and fulfillment reside.

The next fifty years till 2050 will be better years for more Indians than have ever happened in the two thousand years of recorded history of this country. Good luck and god-speed, my young friends.