Long-distance vs. Sprinting, or ‘The Role of a Teacher’

It was during a casual coffee chat that A and I found ourselves discussing trekking and sports. Turns out he has been to the glaciers above Badrinath, right along the Indo-China border. I asked him about how he trained, and he said:

I was not in to sports. It was during my first year in IIT, that I began getting up early in the morning to go and run. It went on for about a year, until one morning when I ran in to the institute coach. He stood in the park keeping an eye on me, and then asked me to run slower.

The coach watched — pleasantly surprised — as I completed 12 rounds. Then he asked me to race another guy. I tried it about seven times, but I always lagged. (It) felt terrible. The coach came to me and said “Don’t sweat over this. Sprinting is for those whose body muscles have quick response. You are better suited for long-distance running. Focus there, and develop yourself more.” It was that motivation which eventually helped me win long-distances races, trek for adventures, and enjoy so much more.

The conversation left me wondering. How many of us keep sprinting without realizing that we’re long-distance runners, or vice-versa? How critical is the role of a good teacher in life?

Michael Useem on Leadership Lessons from Capt. Sullenberger

He had just taken off on Airbus A320 from New York, when his plane was hit by a flock of birds. Captain Sullenberger reported a “double strike”. Both engines had been hit in mid-air, and anything could happen. With a composure bordering limits of human objectivity, he landed the aircraft safely in the middle of the Hudson river. Not a single passenger was injured.

US Airways Flight 1549 afloat in the Hudson

US Airways Flight 1549 afloat in the Hudson


Prof. Michael Useem is the Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. In his recent column for the Washington Post, Prof. Useem has identifies key leadership insights from Captain Sullenberger’s actions. Let me share them here:

1. We should first develop technical mastery of our main goal.

2. We should then be masters of our self-discipline. Ignore distractions, focus on what matters.

3. Master making good and timely decisions.

In learning about those five minutes and the entire life that prepared him for those minutes, we may be that much better prepared for those future moments when our own leadership is on the line. Thank you Captain Sullenberger.

Often in life we come across circumstances that test us to the core. We are also occasionally witness to others being tested. Those moments can become snapshots of everlasting lessons. Have you learned any such lesson(s) in similar ways? Feel free to share..

P.S. — Prof. Useem is also the Editor of the Wharton Leadership Digest. I had the good fortune of interacting with him when I wrote an article for the Digest last year.

The Surprising Science of Motivation

Dan Pink, the author of A Whole New Mind, talks at TED about motivation. Pink claims that extrinsic motivators like performance-based rewards (especially monetary) do not always improve performance. In fact, he argues, they have a largely diminishing effect on productivity, creative satisfaction and quality of work. Now Pink is not a philosopher or your rosy-posy motivational speaker. He cites various examples, like this one from the London School of Economics, to support his point.

I found it interesting to hear what Pink identified as the 3 main motivating factors at work:

1. Autonomy — The freedom to pursue independent ideas and thoughts, flexibility to manage your own schedule. (He cited Google and ROWE as examples. Of course we all know the story of each Google employee getting 20% of their work-time to do anything they want; about 50% of the company’s new products germinate here. ROWE goes one step even further.)

2. Mastery — The desire and opportunity to become better and better at something that matters.

3. Purpose — “The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Pink was speaking in the context of businesses and management, but I guess the same holds true in lots of other cases. These 3 factors also explain why we have writers, designers, scientists, artists and freelancers, not all of who are making loads of money, but still giving their best at what they do.

Link to the talk at TED.

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

Why do we want to have friends? Why do we want to make money? Why do we want to travel, or explore? A lot of these whys trace their beginnings at the quintessential human search for happiness. Happiness — the great motivation behind so many of our actions — who to call a friend, what to eat, where to go, what to read etc etc.

The Theme:  Happiness — Where is it?
In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner explores the world to find the happiest places (if there is any such thing!) and further, the reasons behind their bliss. He travels to places like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, India, Britain, Thailand in his attempt to understand what makes a place more or less happy than others. The book offers quick snapshots of the cultures of these places, interspersed with the author’s timely and humorous references to psychological literature and philosophical insights.

The Stuff: Switzerland, Iceland, India and More…
I read the book with great excitement because it combined two of my main interests — travel, and understanding of human joy. The author traveled to some exciting places, and did a reasonable job to give a flavor of the culture that he saw. No place is all homogenous, but the author did not hesitate to provide generalizations. He picked up what he saw as common patterns of attitudes and threw them up for judgement. For instance,

The Swiss are as fond of attenuated lives. They hum along, satisfied, never dipping below a certain floor but never touching the ceiling, either. A Swiss could never describe something as awesome or super, but only c’est pas mal, not bad. Is that the secret to happiness, a life that is c’est pas mal?

And then, he talks about the Mai pen lai (never mind) attitude of Thai people. They do not give anything too much importance. Could that be a secret behind their happiness? India, the author finds (not surprisingly), is a land of contradictions. People are comfortable with allowing differing points of view to co-exist, both within the society and within themselves.

Iceland, where nights are unusually longer, is still a happy place according to Weiner.

The Icelandic way is: Everything in moderation, including moderation. It works for them.

The Icelandic people would not touch alcohol during the weekdays, but drink heavily over the weekends. The prolonged darkness has perhaps been made beautiful by the way they weave their lives around it.

Statement, and Limitations
Of course, each country is a confluence of people with different thoughts, however the author’s endeavors to identify common undercurrents and then reflect on them are the essence of the book. The book also has its limitations. In his efforts to travel to so many places in a fixed span of time, the author seems to have missed some important points. For instance, you cannot sum up a country by spending a couple of days in its hotel (he did it with Qatar).  Similarly, India is not about an ashram or a conversation with Bangalore kids. India is much more about a closely-knit family system, uncountable festivals and rituals which form a strong force behind the Indian sense of belonging and happiness. But of course when a person is traveling to so many places over fixed amount of time, there is only so much that can be done.

I like how Weiner summarizes his lessons toward the end of the book. The humorous, objective tone of the book naturally evolves to a logical recognition of the little, subtle things that ultimately drive happiness.

I am no philosopher, so here goes: Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

… Happiness requires livable conditions, but not paradise.

mai pen lai on my lips. Never mind. Let it go. I am more aware of the corrosive nature of envy and try my best to squelch it before it grows. I don’t take my failures quite so hard anymore. I see beauty in a dark winter sky.

… Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective Tissue.

3 Lessons from Stanford, from Oprah Winfrey

Born to a poor teenage single mother, this African American girl was raped at age 9 and 14-years-old. Few could have predicted she would go on to become the host of the world’s highest-rated talk-show in the history of television.

Oprah Winfrey had a candid message to give to the graduating class of Stanford. It was about the 3 simple things:

1. Feelings — “When you’re doing what you’re meant to do, it feels right”, she said “and every day is a bonus regardless of what you’re getting paid.” She defined success as a combination of “money and meaning”.

2. Failiure — “Ask every failiure: What is it here to teach me?”

3. Finding happiness — Oprah asked the audience to “stand for something greater than yourself… Whatever fields you choose, if you operate from the paradigm of service, I know your life will have more value and you will be happy.”

P.S. — A total digression, but I have to mention 2 recent movies I just loved watching:
1. Slumdog Millionaire: (An authentic depiction of Indian poverty, juxtaposed with remarkable hope).
2. Frost/Nixon: (Frank Langella delivers a superb performance as Nixon)

Until Death Do Us Part

Imagine being an unknown woman, and distributing condoms on the city roads for an election campaign… !

Just finished reading Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir about her political struggle for Columbia. Betancourt was a presidential candidate in the 2002 elections in Columbia, when she was kidnapped and chained in jungles, until her rescue six and a half years later.

In a very moving book — written before her kidnapping — she recalls political struggles and inspiring incidents from her life. The book begins with her childhood years which were spent in Paris. Ingrid’s mother was Miss Columbia and her father was a minister in the government. After her studies, and a few years of having been married in France, she decides to come back to Columbia with a mission to rid the country of corruption.

In a country where the crooked choose politicians and policy, she finds herself in a negligible minority. Betancourt describes how, with few resources and many enemies, she struggles to start a political campaign. She is first elected as a representative, then a senator, before she becomes a candidate for the presidential candidate until being kidnapped.

What I find remarkable about the story is the fearlessness of Ingrid Betancourt.

Her first election campaign’s symbol was a ‘condom’. She chose it to symbolize protection against corruption, which was as deadly as the AIDS virus. Imagine being a woman, running your first election campaign with little money, and distributing condoms on the city roads with people making mocking comments!

And, she won. She won. The enthusiasm, the purity, the strength, the focus of her message hit the right spot. When people have become numb and indifferent to long stretches of injustice, it is radical, fearless, and bluntly honest messages which can deliver radical changes in attitude. That was my inspiration from Ingrid Betancourt.

The book mentions several other remarkable instances, almost like a thriller story. The politicians that Betancourt tried to label as corrupt, used it against her. Press, public opinion, threats were all used against her. As a mother with young children and amongst the thin minority in a corrupt political class, Betancourt was frustrated. These are critical moments of individual test, when there is a thin line between perseverance and resignation.

Betancourt went on national media and spoke with such straightforwardness that surprised — almost offended — people. And that helped her shake the conscience of a nation that had become hopeless with its politicians.

It is a story of hope, courage and conviction. Ingrid Betancourt was released earlier this year as an outcome of a bloodless rescue mission, after six years in captivity. Her book is inspiring, and one hopes that she regains the conviction to finish the highest missions that she had aspired for.

Big Russ and Me

I just finished reading Tim Russert’s book “Big Russ and Me“. The book is full of anecdotes from daily life, focusing on the lessons Tim Russert learned from his father, whom he calls ‘Big Russ’.

Russert has been one of the finest journalists on American Television, and was known for his ability to translate complex policy formulation in to a language that the common man could understand.

In this book, Russert recounts his school days, the influence of his teachers, the inspiration from seeing his father work two jobs to ensure his kids could go to school, the love of parents, the feeling of intimacy in a small town, joys of simple living and the ethic of discipline. The book is inspiring because so many of these stories and incidents are the stuff that most of us can relate to, through direct experience. Tim Russert did a fine job putting them in to words.

Amongst the lessons from the book that I can recall off-the-top of my head, are:

1. Smile and confidently greet people when meeting them, especially for the first time.
2. Channel extra energy constructively.
3. Be mindful of the effects of your actions on others, and make sure you have a positive impact.
4. Have fun, food and frolic in life.
5. Try to think out-of-the-box; I translate it to myself thus: retain your common-sense, under all circumstances.
6. There is much beyond education that constitutes learning and ability.
7. Work with people who inspire you.
8. Set high standards for yourself, and be disciplined.
9. Things are never perfect; objective optimism is a good policy.
10. When you screw something up, own it and apologize.

Of course, there’s much more…. and anecdotes are always interesting to read. Overall, a very good book — one that I’d definitely recommend my younger brother to read.