Welcome to the last blog of 2016. Since this weekend blog was set up, I have written 38 posts, which are aimed to be consumed in about 10 minutes. It is now emailed to more than 750 subscribers. But via postings on www.scroll.in and www.linkedin.com, another 10,000 to 100,000 views a week are garnered. Signing up for the mailing is easy on www.nirmalyakumar.com and unsubscribe requests are immediately handled. Please forward to anyone you believe would be interested. For those who came late, the top 10 posts of the year were:
- I just Got Fired!
- Just Fired, and Moving on
- Is there too much talent on the team?
- Does Anybody Hate You?
- Let People Cheat on Goals in Order to Succeed
- Why Demographic Segmentation Rarely Works?
- Why People Evade Taxes
- Working Across Cultures: Who Will You Save?
- Beating the Index or Betting your Retirement
- China – Epiphany
Those who have read the top post of the year know that I have had a tumultuous year. Now unemployed, one can sit and feel sorry for oneself or feel content with one’s life. The latter is easy. At the age of 23, I vividly recall asking my father for a one-way ticket to the USA and 400 dollars. While he had the 400 dollars, he had to borrow from a friend (which I later repaid) to buy my ticket out of India.
What I have learnt observing people who have had a similar life is that it often makes one lose empathy for those less fortunate. One can be seduced by the narrative that I did it all on my own. Let’s use the last blog of the year to argue that we are where we are because of others and good old fashioned luck.
On applying for an MBA at 20+ schools in USA, only one, University of Illinois at Chicago, indicated any interest in my application. I landed on their campus. Seeking a place to stay, a post on the campus wall led to a meeting with a lady who was offering free lodging if I stayed home every evening to babysit her twins. I could not believe my windfall.
The university offered only provisional admission for a single quarter since they were uncertain of my abilities. My lucky break was that the first course was marketing taught by an Indian professor, Chem Narayana, who also happened to be the chair of the department. After observing my performance on the midterm exams, he persuaded the university to give me a scholarship. Not only was my tuition waived, but I also received 6,000 dollars annually tax free for expenses. Suddenly, I was rich and living on my own. I never forget that at critical junctures, others have made indispensable and altruistic contributions to help move me forward.
In any case, I did not start from nothing. I was blessed to have inherited the right cocktail of genes from my parents. The brain from my mother combined with the physical energy of my father. Reverse this, with no disrespect to my parents, especially my deceased father, it would probably have been a disaster. Yes mom, I am preparing you for the autobiography.
I don’t know what led my parents to send to me La Martiniere Calcutta. Even today, it is ranked among the top five schools in India and impossible to gain admission into. At the age of seven, I failed the entrance examination. Once again, it was my good fortune that my father happened to know a bureaucrat in the education ministry who “managed” my entry. The students at La Martiniere were drawn from the cream of Calcutta society, and it was encounters with them that raised my ambitions and life chances.
Of course, one may retort that any success is explained by my hard work and learning orientation. However, if you think deeply about this, it is not clear that this should be attributed to me. Why do I work hard and aspire for nothing less than perfection? The answer is I can’t be otherwise – it’s a providential gift of personality, just like my many flaws.
The point is that we often ascribe our success to our own abilities and hard work, while our failures are attributed to bad luck and the unfortunate circumstances. However, I urge you at the end of the year to feel grateful. If we accept success is largely determined by luck and propitious circumstances, then empathy for those who have been less fortunate is inevitable. Research also indicates that such an attitude makes people more open to societal welfare schemes that aim to reduce poverty and equalize life chances. By thinking differently, we can change the world.
Following David Bowie and Prince, 2016 ended with the sad demise of George Michael. This led to an argument with a friend of mine who placed all three on the same pedestal. Now to be clear, among the millions who are in, and have been in, the pop music business, these three are exceptional artists. But, it leads to the question: what separates the great from the truly great in any profession?
My criterion is their influence on others in the chosen field. In academics, this impact is relatively easy to assess via citations on Google Scholar. In music, it is harder. Yet, on this criterion, the answer must be Prince because of his extraordinary influence on contemporary music. However, we are splitting hairs. With his amazingly gifted vocal capability, George Michael is my personal favourite of the three.
Enjoy the magic dust and have a wonderful new year.