Published on 11-10-03
Experience is a comb which Nature gives to man after he is bald! But all bald men are not old men. Nani Palkhivala once circulated a quotation about how youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind. Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but giving up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. There is much research all over the world about leaders who are learning for a lifetime. Such people are focused on the future, not on the past. They are addicted to life, as energized by it as they ever were. They seem to be forever young.
Actress Zohra Sehgal is 92. She says the secrets of her success are “a one hour physical workout and those explicit scenes in novels.” Actor Dev Anand is 80 and confesses that he does not smoke or drink and believes that the way to be perennially young is to look ahead with excitement, and being alive all the time. Ustad Bismillah Khan is 87 and feels that “music is an ocean and I have barely reached the shore after so many decades. My search is incomplete and that’s what keeps me going.” Kathak dancer Sitara Devi is 79 and asserts “I do riyaaz every single day. I am still learning to dance, now Bharata Natyam style.”
I wish to share some lessons that I have learnt about staying young and zestful. I do so not merely from the perspective of my experiences so far, but also knowing that several inexperiences await me in the future. Sharing may help, it may even be interesting
You are defined in others’ perception by your body, your mind and your time. All three require managing. It is a huge disadvantage not to be able to do so.
It pays to have a practical attitude about the role of your body. It is not the most essential thing about you, but it is the vehicle which carries what is essential. If you were given a car and told that it would be the only one for the rest of your life, you would take care of it in a certain way. Your body is the only one you’ll ever have and you have to work hard to make it run longer and better.
The mind is a bit like a garden. If it isn’t fed and cultivated, weeds will take it over. Just like your body would not be in good shape if it was fed only ice-cream, potato chips and hamburgers, you cannot feed your mind only with television, soap operas and Bollywood movies. Indulge your mind in the adventures it has been trained to undertake, do not waste it – read, think, write, do what turns you on in mental calisthenics.
The day has twenty four hours for you, and so also for those you work with. Be respectful of your own time, and even more so, of other people’s time. Diary and time management is a serious weakness of many top people and the higher the executive, the more deleterious are the effects of poor time management.
So, lesson number one is to manage yourself since nobody else can manage your body, your mind or your time.
Life is this great theatre where we are all small actors. Ours is a role, cast by a scriptwriter. Our role in the play will for sure get over. That is when we peel off the grease paint, shed our costumes, and go “home to our maker.” All the glory, if any, achieved during the drama of life will probably seem much less relevant at that time compared to the magical moment in the play. At that time, we will listen to the voice of silence and our own conscience. Will that be a pleasant voice?
We can make it so. By remembering throughout life what Gandhiji once said to beware of : politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, education without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and worship without sacrifice.
It is essential to live a life with conscience. That is my second lesson.
When I was offered a terrific professional opportunity as Chairman of Unilever Arabia in 1990, my wife and I faced a dilemma : how would we cope with the restrictive lifestyle in Jeddah? My mother’s advice was insightful and has stayed with me ever since, “If you both have decided to be happy, nobody can stop you. If you have decided to be unhappy, then nobody can help you.” We spend our lives as though happiness is a destination and as though we are on a journey towards that destination. In reality, happiness is a companion on the journey. We can work for happiness or with happiness. The choice is ours.
Sir Thomas Lipton said, “There is no greater fun than hard work.” You excel in fields that you truly enjoy, you feel happy when you feel stretched to your full potential. Success is only a by product, not the aim of the act of working.
Scott Peck wrote, “Life is a series of problems. Do you want to moan about them or solve them?” We all meet people who crib about one thing or the other as though it was their birthright not to have those problems. I say, thank God for problems, if there were none, we would not be required, there would be no job for us to do!
As a matter of fact, life is also fun. We can feel the fun only if we see it as fun. I recall a fine movie called Zorba the Greek. It is a story about the relationship between two men, Zorba and the Boss. Boss has looks, intelligence, health, money and education. He is also a good person who is all locked up inside : he doesn’t seem to enjoy life. He reads and he thinks, but he doesn’t have fun. Then Zorba tells him, “You’ve got everything, Boss, except one thing – madness. A man needs a little madness or he never does cut the rope and be free.” At the end, Zorba teaches Boss to dance, to laugh, and to let go.
My wife has been my Zorba!
Every golfer tries to drive the ball to a very long distance. In the process, all sorts of mistakes occur because the game involves the masterly co-ordination of several movements simultaneously. The golf coach always advises that direction is more important than distance. So it is with life.
Despite one’s best attempts, there will be ups and downs. It is relationships and friendships that enable a person to navigate the choppy waters that the ship of life will encounter. When I was young, there was a memorable film by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart and Dona Reed, and named It’s a Wonderful Life. It is about a man who is about to commit suicide because he thinks he is a failure. An angel is sent to rescue him. The bottom line of the film is that ‘No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends’.
Attitude is the most important choice we can make. Research from Harvard and several top universities, all bear this out. These studies reveal that up to 85% of our success in life is due to attitude, while only 15% is due to ability! Whether 85:15 is correct or not, one thing is for sure i.e. attitude is far more important than intelligence, education, special talent or luck. Tim Hansel writes in his book You Gotta Keep Dancin’ that pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.
The world will not devote itself to making us happy. We have to form an attitude which enables us to adapt to the world, to think with an open mind and constructively. I learnt that success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is in the doing, not the getting. Success is in the trying, not the triumph!
Ardous Huxley wrote, “Experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him.” So it is essential to seek out experiences at the grassroots level, particularly early in one’s career.
After studying Physics and Engineering, at an HLL interview for Computer Traineeship, I was asked whether I would consider Marketing instead of Computers. I responded negatively. After a couple of comfortable weeks in the swanky Head Office, I was given a train ticket to Nasik. Would I please meet Mr. Kelkar to whom I would be attached for the next two months? He would teach me to work as a salesman in his territory, which included staying in Kopargaon, Pimpalgaon and other small towns.
I was most upset. In a town called Ozhar, I was moving around from shop to shop with a bullock cart full of soaps and a salesman’s folder in my hand. Imagine my embarrassment when an IIT friend appeared in front of me. I could have died a thousand deaths. After this leveling experience, I was less embarrassed to work as a Despatch Clerk in the Company Depot and an Invoice Clerk in the Accounts Department. Several years later, I realised the value of such grassroots level experience. It is fantastic. I would advise young people to seek out nail-dirtying, collar-soiling, shoe-wearing tasks. That is how you learn about organizations, about the true nature of work, and the dignity of the many tasks that go into building great enterprises.
The lesson is seek out grassroots level experiences early in your career.
We are all trained to speak – at school, at college debates, in tutorial colleges. Nobody teaches us to listen. Come to think about it, how does one train a person to listen? And then, there are two kinds of listening : to the words spoken and to the song behind the words. Most of us have not even learnt the former, let alone the latter.
Doug Ivester lasted only 28 months as CEO of Coke after having developed a successful career for several decades in the same company. Why? His critics thought he did not listen, that he was not sensitive to some important issues like minorities, the adulteration case in Belgium and so on. Eckard Pfeiffer of Compaq was fired by his board. Why? For surrounding himself with yes-men and ignoring those who would speak truths to him.
As a trainee at Hindustan Lever, we would be invited by Chairman Prakash Tandon for lunch occasionally. It was a terrifying occasion. One of my trainee colleagues was bright, exuberant and garrulous. The Chairman once gently admonished him, “Young man, as you progress in your career, will you promise me that you will listen more than you talk?”
The lesson is to avoid the congenital disability of not listening. Let us all learn to listen.
The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu practiced a successful management development system for centuries. At 10, the youngster joined the business as podiyan (= trainee), at 21, he became aduttavan (= assistant), at 31, he became pangali (= partner) and at 41, he became mudalali (= proprietor). They had a system of rigour before reward.
At one stage of my career, I was appointed as the Brand Manager for Lifebuoy and Pears soap, the company’s most popular-priced and most premium soaps. And what was a Brand Manager? A mini-businessman, responsible for the production, sales and profits of the brand, accountable for its long-term growth, etc., etc. I had read those statements, I believed them and here I was, at 27, “in charge of everything”. But very soon, I found I could not move a pin without checking with my seniors. I expressed my frustration to the Marketing Director and gently asked whether I could not be given total charge. He smiled benignly and said, “The perception and reality are both right. You will get total charge when you know more about the brand than anyone else in this company – about its formulation, the raw materials, the production costs, the consumer’s perception, the distribution and so on. How long do you think that it will take?”
“Maybe, ten years”, I replied, “and I don’t expect to be the Lifebuoy and Pears Brand Manager for so long”! And then suddenly, the lesson was clear. I was desiring total control, long before I deserved it. This happens to us all the time – in terms of responsibilities, in terms of postings and promotions, it happens all the time that there is a gap between our perception of what we deserve and the reality of what we get.
It helps to deserve before we desire.
When you are older, you can and should be different from my generation. Ours is a great and wonderful country, and realising her true potential in the global arena depends ever so much on the quality and persistence of our young people. Good luck in your journey, my young friends, and God be with you and our beloved Nation.
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