Author Archives: Rajan Parulekar

About Rajan Parulekar

I write on different topics like management, book reviews, human behaviour etc. The main objective is to provide a different viewpoint on the conventional topics.

The Metaphor of Bicycle Thieves

Cycle, a Marathi film, is a story that unfolds in Bhugaon, a village in Konkan, Maharashtra, circa 1948. The protagonist is Keshav who is an astrologer whom people consulted mostly in times of distress. Keshav provided guidance about his client’s future by studying his horoscope. Quite often if the client were to be in financial distress, Keshav not only used to offer his services pro-bono but also partake of a meal with them. Being a kind and noble soul, Keshav had earned respect and goodwill in his community.

His grandfather, Gopalkrishna was an Ayurvedic doctor who was equally respected for medication and treatment of his patients. A British army officer, one such beneficiary of the doctor’s treatment; gifted Gopalkrishna his cycle while leaving India. Gopalkrishna during his final days bequeathed the cycle, distinct in its bright yellow colour, to his grandson Keshav, the protagonist of the story. 

The imported cycle was a rarity in Bhugaon, and Keshav was proud and possessive of it. Once when Keshav and his family go to watch a Marathi play, his cycle is stolen by two petty thieves, Vitthal and Tukaram. The next day, while riding in the adjoining village, the cycle develops a flat tyre. They go to the puncture shop for repairs, the shop owner recognizes the cycle and its original owner. To avoid any confusion, the thieves claim they are Keshav’s cousins and Keshav has lent the bicycle to them for a few days. Believing them, the shop owner refuses to take any fees for the repairs. On the contrary, he hands over ₹6 to the ‘cousins’ which he owed Keshav. Wherever these two thieves go, they were treated with exceptional hospitality, whether with meals, tea/coffee, or even with an overnight stay. At a school, they were invited as the chief guests, to deliver a motivational address to the students. With each passing day and with such touching incidents their conscience starts pricking. Initially, it was the fear of getting caught; but now it was the affection and love triggering guilt and shame.

In the meanwhile, Keshav was stricken with grief. The only thought which haunted him was why did he lose the cycle and how he can recover it. His wife entreats him to consult an astrologer who says, “Keshav, do you really feel I can tell you the whereabouts of your stolen cycle? People do not expect to hear the truth, but need consolation and encouragement about a brighter tomorrow when they seek counsel from an astrologer.”

While returning home, Keshav realized his approach as a soothsayer with his clients was no different. More than an astrologer, he was a psychologist, a counsellor telling people with encouraging advice like: this time is not right for youthis too shall pass, don’t get emotionally involved with things, do your best and leave the rest, handover your burden to the Almighty, he will take care of you, etc. 

Lost in his thoughts he came across a ramshackle house, walls cracked, valuables scattered all over and the rooftop blown over by a cyclone. To his surprise, he found the house owner quite composed. When Keshav enquires about the tragedy, the house owner says, “Last year when I was going through difficult times; I came to you for guidance, I still remember what you said then, don’t get stuck with things.” It was a moment of revelation for Keshav and his attachment towards his cycle. As a Zen master says ‘when my hut got burnt, I had a clear picture of the moon.’

Bicycle Thief by Vittorio Di Sica was released in 1948. Italy had gone through severe hardship post World War II and was plagued by recession, inflation, and a high rate of unemployment. The protagonist of the film is Antonio Ritchie, an unemployed youth for the last two years. After considerable struggle, he manages to get a job to paste cinema posters on poles and walls. Having a bicycle was a prime requisite for the job. Antonio manages to convince his quarrelsome but loving wife Maria to sell the bedsheets she received as a gift during their marriage, in order to purchase the bicycle. Now Antonio is all set to start his job with a bang. Within a short time, on the very first day itself, his bicycle gets stolen. Antonio is frustrated, runs from pillar to post, at last manages to trace his bicycle and nab the thief. However, nobody believes him, neither the people around, nor the police. And, for lack of evidence, Antonio is not able to regain his bicycle.

As he was walking along with Bruno, his 8-year-old son, he sees a bicycle parked alongside a wall. Antonio’s instincts get the better of him, and he attempts to steal it. To his misfortune, he gets caught and is given a sound thrashing. Bruno intervenes and saves his father from the matter getting worse. More than the thrashing, Antonio is hurt that he has cut a sorry figure before his son. On that fateful day, having lost his job, his bicycle, and his self-esteem before his son, Antonio was in total despair while returning home. Bruno while following his dad, picks up his father’s crumpled hat lying on the road; cleans and straightens it, and with a smile puts it on his father. 

Even though Bicycle Thieves by Sica was made in 1948, and Prakash Kunte’s Cycle in 2017, both films depict life in the late 40s. Italy went through the ravages of World War II, whereas India did not. The thief who stole Antonio’s cycle may have had his own compulsion, like Antonio who tried following suit.

The act of stealing a bicycle is shown from a different perspective, of how attachment to worldly things creates pain, of the pricking of their conscience, that makes Vitthal and Tukaram return the bicycle back in the village, even though not required. Keshav realizes his faith in the Almighty. He returns home with his retrieved bicycle, and he now keeps it afar. In his courtyard, he sees another bicycle. His family members and friends congratulate him for recovering the cycle. While touching the mudguard, he sees the yellow paint is wet. Everyone wants Keshav to be happy. The bicycle was just an excuse to make him happy.

One film discusses the inherent goodness, while the other is about the helplessness of people, which may be an outcome of their prevailing circumstances. Can we be judgemental about what is right and what is wrong? In a way, it is a story for all of us, where someone steals our idea or improves upon our original idea and does not give us credit for the original. In between black and white, there are multiple shades of grey. If you steal from one source, it is theft; if you steal from multiple sources, it is plagiarism or research. ‘Bicycle’ is just a metaphor!

Note:

  1. Bicycle Thieves: Is a 1948 Italian neorealist film directed by Vittoria De Sica. Considered as one of the Top 10 All-Time great films; it had  a major influence on Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
  2. Cycle: Is a 2018 Marathi film directed by Prakash Kunte written by Aditi Moghe and produced by Sangram Surve and Amar Pandit and was screened at Cannes Film Festival

Image Source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c5/6e/be/c56ebed6c368d900b30bded63548280e.gif

Socratic Method of Inquiry: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom

Socrates was a Greek philosopher (470BC-399BC) in Athens. He did not author any texts, but his disciple, Plato captured his thoughts in the Dialogue

The Socratic method of inquiry was a method of deep questioning which he used to have with his students on topics like beauty, justice, virtue, etc. He never gave direct answers to his questions but expected his students to figure out their own answers. 

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, worshipping false gods, and not worshipping the state religion. A 100-member jury was arranged to pass a verdict on his crimes. After a day-long trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by administering hemlock, a poison. Socrates was told that he could be pardoned, provided he expressed an apology for his deeds. However, he refused to beg for his life on the following grounds:

– This is my life.

– If I had to stop doing what I am doing, I might as well stop living.

– Who knows? Death may not be so bad, as I have no idea of death.

– I am 71 and may not live much longer.

The Oracle of Delphi has delivered hundred-odd injunctions, inscribed on the temple walls, which include: ‘nothing in excess’ and ‘know thyself.’ One of the famous quotes ascribed to Socrates is: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’

How is this relevant to us? Most of the decisions; be it the type of education, the place to settle, the choice of spouse or career, are often not taken consciously but are either dictated by parents, society, or the circumstances. When we review the decisions, it inspires us to reconsider our most firmly held beliefs. It may also help us to appreciate other’s viewpoints. 

Circa 1975, a British Manager from GKW (Guest Keen Williams) was visiting a premier Engineering and Research Institute in Bombay (now Mumbai) to interview and select Graduate Engineer Trainees (GETs). Seven candidates from the metallurgy dept were shortlisted. For the group discussion (GD), the topic was the future of cricket in India. The GD was quite animated, the students striking off each other’s arguments with ease. After the GD was over, the interviews commenced. The manager asked the first candidate, “how much phosphorous is there in phosphor-bronze?” The student thought for a few seconds and replied it was 25%. “That is the correct answer. Thank you very much. Can you send the next candidate please?” requested the manager. After coming out, his friends asked him about the interview. The candidate replied that not only was the question a simple one, but by fluke, the answer of 25%, had turned out correct. 

The second candidate was called in and was asked the same question. Lo and behold, the student answered with the same aplomb. After leaving the interview room, the students ridiculed the interviewer for his inadequacy in not asking tough questions, vis-à-vis the IQ level of the students and the brand of their institute.

The story continued in a similar fashion for all of the seven candidates. After the interviews were over, the manager called all the candidates inside and said, “young men, during the group discussion, you were vehemently proposing your viewpoint without either considering or listening to the others’ viewpoint. Our company believes in teamwork. You belong to one of India’s premium engineering colleges. However, even after living with the same group for five years, you do not have any concern for other’s viewpoints. How will you perform in our company with such an attitude? To each of you, I asked a question on phosphor-bronze. You may be knowing a lot of things in life even otherwise. 

However, no person can know and need to know everything. I thought at least one of you would say ‘I do not know.’ Yet, all of you gave me the standard answer of 25%. By the way, phosphor-bronze is a member of the family of copper alloys. It is composed of copper that is alloyed with 0.5-11% of tin and has phosphorous in the range of 0.01-0.35%.I was not expecting a perfect answer, and a closer approximation to the actual value would have sufficed. Even if one amongst you were to express his ignorance, I would have recruited him. I am afraid I am not able to select any of you.”

Socrates made a clear distinction between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person maybe knowing things; however, he may act foolish as he may be too confident in what he knows. A wise person, on the contrary, cannot act foolish as he knows his limitations. He knows what he does not know. 

Due to his unconventional ways of self-exploration, Socrates was considered a wise man. An elderly gentleman in Athens once said, “no one is wiser than Socrates.” Rather than getting carried away by such flattery, Socrates’ analysis of the above statement was: Either all are as dumb or as knowledgeable as Socrates.

Conventional education aims at stuffing the students’ minds with information; whereas Socrates’ method of deep questioning helps develop critical thinking to question our belief system and assumptions; and so, it helps us understand the statement: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ leading towards the wisdom: ‘to know what one does not know.’ 

The profound statement Socrates made was, “the one thing I know is that I know nothing.” This was not out of humility, but it was an expression of reality.

Job, Career or a Calling?

“My daughter nowadays is a bit depressed. Despite doing an M.Sc. in biotechnology, she is not getting a package like her friends in the IT sector,” said my friend Dilip. The approach to work can be described in the following three categories:

  1. Job – People engage in work primarily to earn money. Work is a means to an end.
  2. Career– Apart from money, they are keen to climb the higher echelons in the workplace, get promoted, and achieve higher designations.
  3. Calling – People are driven by the work itself, and work becomes an integral part of their life. Yet, they are not workaholics, and they find fulfilment in work which is an end in itself.

The above approaches lead to three kinds of growth structures:  Logarithmic Growth, Exponential Growth, and Sinusoidal- Exponential growth.

  1. Logarithmic Growth: Here the growth in the initial phase of a job is quite fast, and it slowly reduces over a period of time. When someone joins a job at a very high salary, it may be quite difficult to achieve commensurate growth in the subsequent years.

This is represented by a logarithmic function of 2 where the growth from 1 to 2 years will be similar to the growth from 2-4 years or 4-8 or 8-16 years. ( Fig.1)

2. Exponential Growth: There are some jobs or professions which may not be that attractive initially from a financial perspective, as are jobs in teaching or research. Here the person may have to wait for a long time to see the end of the tunnel. In the article ‘Making of an Expert’ in HBR, Anders Ericsson, Michele Pretula, and Edward Cokely propose that to achieve significant expertise a person needs to spend around 10,000 hours of systematic practise. There are considerable efforts to master the domain and sometimes even to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.  Examples of two eminent engineers are discussed below. ( Fig.2)

How a Chance Encounter with the NCL Director Changed his career:

In 1966, Raghunath Mashelkar completed his B.E. (Chemical Engg.) from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), and he had several offers from US and Canadian Universities for post-graduate studies. However, he was impressed with the work of Dr. Manmohan Sharma and decided to do a Ph.D. under him. He completed his Ph. D. in 3 years, and in 1969, with a meagre allowance of ₹10,000 per year, he developed a process of bubble columns which was at one-tenth the cost of international technology. Later, he did some pioneering work in rheology (a branch of physics that deals with deformation and flow of matter) at Salfer Institute. Subsequently, he held a lecturer’s post in Chemical Engineering at a US university.

While in London Velayurthi Nayadumma of National Chemical Laboratories (NCL) called him for a meeting with his director B.D. Tilak and told him the country needed a bright scientist like him. Mashelkar dropped the idea of going to USA and joined NCL, Pune at a Salary of ₹2100.

NCL was doing a consulting project with Indian Organic Chemical Industries Limited (IOCL) Manali, Chennai. IOCL was producing polyester yarn with a bought-out technology from a German Company. IOCL was a given the know-how but not the know-why. The production process, though fast (around 1km/min), was creating intermittent problems. For testing purposes, NCL had applied for a license to import a piece of testing equipment called ‘Weissenberg Rheogoniometer.’  Due to foreign exchange constraints, the proposal was rejected by the government.

Mashelkar and his team devised an innovative way of mathematical modelling and virtual simulation of the production process and IOCL was subsequently able to improve the productivity of its plant.

This simulation technology was not only an alternative but was also considerably cheaper vis-à-vis the conventional technology. Later on, NCL was able to sell this to overseas clients; and the technology flow was reversed. Mashelkar fondly remembers his guide, Dr. Sharma, who used to say, ‘for research, brains are more important than infrastructure.’

Honoured with a Padma Vibhushan, and 44 honorary doctorates, Raghunath Mashelkar was quite influential in revoking US patents on Basmati and Turmeric.

Problem Solving with Available Resources:

After completing his B.E. (Mech.) from VJTI, Anil Kakodkar joined BARC in 1964, as a trainee engineer. He reported to Mr. Subramaniam who said to him, “we have a metallizing gun which has not been used for a long time, and is hence not functional; can you repair it?” Anil said he could and to do so, he asked for a helper, a foreman, and a tradesman. Mr. Subramaniam declined.

The metallizing gun was used for coating aluminium oxide, zirconium oxide, ceramics on desired substrates. After seven days the young engineer was able to make the gun functional. Mr. Subramanian said, “I wanted you to solve the problem by yourself and I am happy you could do it.”

After the nuclear blast in Pokhran in 1974, India became an outcast and could get neither the critical components nor the relevant technology from abroad. Getting even steel tubes from the USA was banned. Under his leadership, BARC developed indigenous technology to overcome the sanctions and thus made India’s peaceful nuclear program a success.

Anil Kakodkar remembers the metallizing gun incident fondly. It helped him develop his passion, and listen to his true calling. He took over as the Director of BARC (1996-2000), and later as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

The hallmark of exponential growth is that the person works in the same or related domain, and develops exceptional expertise with a steady and systematic career progression.

3. Sinusoidal-Exponential Growth: Unlike the first two growth structures, this type of growth is quite random. When you watch such a person, you may not be able to figure out whether there is a proper career path.( Fig. 3)  An example to illustrate: Rakesh was a student who was at the bottom of the class scoring around 40-45%. After 10th he opted for commerce but had to drop out after the 12th Standard.

Rakesh did a series of sundry jobs from selling vacuum cleaners, books, to working in grocery stores, and even as a waiter in a restaurant. Tired of working for others, he started driving a taxi. Within a few years, he got into the transport business, and after almost 20 years of struggle, he now owns a pan-India transport business worth around ₹100 crores. I happened to run into him at Churchgate in Mumbai three years back. He invited me over dinner to a five-star hotel. Being nostalgic, we were reminiscing the good old school days, the teachers, and our friends. One such schoolmate was a friend called Shivanand, who was the school topper, a merit lister, who opted to become a Chartered Accountant (which he had happened to clear at the first attempt). We were in awe of his intelligence and hard work.

I asked, “Rakesh, by the way, do you remember Shivanand, the school topper? I am told he is also in Mumbai. He must have reached the pinnacle of his career. Why didn’t you invite him too?”

After a long pause, he said, “You are right. He has reached his pinnacle. He is working with our group for the last five years, and last year he was promoted as the CFO. I would have liked him to join us over dinner, but being the financial year-end, he is busy managing the books of accounts.”

I asked, “Rakesh, can you understand the finer nuances of the balance sheet and P&L statement like a professional CA?”

Rakesh said, “I need not, but then how do you think I have brought the company to a level of ₹100 Crores in the last 10 years?” He continued, “Whenever he comes to me with any financial statement and I express a doubt for any specific expenditure; while giving his explanation I do not look at the figures. I look at him to see whether he is bluffing or hiding crucial information. If I feel he is bluffing, I have a choice to get it cross-verified through external sources, paying nominal fees. Remember, whether one is in the business of transport or hospitality, ultimately all of us are in the people business. I may not be able to read the balance sheet fluently, but I do read people with ease.”

For Shivanand, it was a logarithmic growth; whereas in the case of Rakesh, whether his working in unrelated fields or dabbling in a variety of businesses may look random or sinusoidal in the short-term; in retrospect, it is exponential growth. With every venture, even if one were to fail, there is a learning of what one should do or not do. With this, Rakesh moved on to a higher point on the exponential curve. By connecting the dots, one can see the method in the madness.

In short, logarithmic growth is to play safely in the comfort zone, where the love of lucre (package/CTC) is the main driver. With exponential growth, it is the pursuit of a career with a true calling. In the case of sinusoidal-exponential growth, it is to figure out one’s life by trial and error, thereby detecting a sense of purpose.

According to an American organisational psychologist, Amy Wrzesniewski, it is not the work, but our attitude towards work that makes the fundamental difference whether one finds life meaningful or not. It has nothing to do with qualifications, designations, or CTC. A nurse may enjoy working for a calling, while an MBA graduate with a 10X salary may find his job boring.

Are you working in a job, a career, or are you working for a true calling? If so, which growth curve, do you belong to?

Is it the logarithmic, exponential, or sinusoidal-exponential growth structure?

None of these growth structures are inherently good or bad per se. The choice one makes  at any junctures of life may be either one’s own or can be conditioned by the peer pressure, the societal norms, the economic constraints or a stroke of serendipity as in Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar’s case. Whatever the case may be, at this moment as Dr. Wayne Dyer said, ‘You are the sum total of all your choices!’

P.S. : The above article is an abridged version of the session conducted by the writer at the bimonthly forum: Know Thyself – An Inquiry into the significance of Living conducted every 1st and 3rd Sunday at 1100 HRS ( IST) on Zoom.

A Forgotten Hero or an Ungrateful Nation?

On 24th June 1991, three days after swearing-in as the Prime Minister, Prannoy Roy from NDTV while interviewing P.V. Narasimha Rao (PVN) asked him, “Hon. Prime Minister, the country is going through a major financial crisis, you are heading a minority government. You are not in the pink of health. How are you going to manage?” After a long pause, PVN, using Bismarck’s famous quote, replied, “Politics, is the art of the possible.”

PVN took oath as the Prime Minister three days earlier. For 37 of the 44 years since independence, the country was ruled by the first family of Indian politics: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv Gandhi. Barring Lal Bahadur Shastri (and Gulzarilal Nanda as an Interim PM) the Congress party handed over the baton of Prime Ministership to someone outside the Gandhi-Nehru family.

Was he the party’s first choice to be fielded as the prime ministerial candidate? The Congress coterie wanted to have Sonia Gandhi to fill the slot. Already undergoing a tremendous shock of the untimely death of her husband and with the security of her children being her major concern, 

Sonia declined the offer. Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Vice President was the next choice who declined on health grounds. The ambitious Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar could not muster enough support. The mantle felt on PVN only because the party leadership felt he may not last long, give or take one year! It was more of a stop-gap arrangement.

Let alone a strong lobby behind him, PVN did not even have good friends in the Congress party. The man who had no friends did not have strong enemies either, which incidentally turned out to be a plus point in his being considered for the PM’s post. Some external events also were favourable for PVN. The elections in the northern states were over before 21st May, the day of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; while the southern states were scheduled to vote later. The post-assassination sympathy wave helped Congress clinch142 seats out of 227 MPs from South India. Arjun Singh, one of the main contenders from Madhya Pradesh lost his claim due to the poor numbers of Congress MPs in the North. Sharad Pawar could get support from only 38 MPs from Maharashtra. For the first time, the country was to have a PM from the south. Thus, it was by accident, and a quirk of events; and not by design that PVN became the PM. His failing health was also in his favour, as his party did not expect him to complete the full five-year term.

Foreign Exchange Crisis: In June 1991, the Indian Govt had foreign exchange reserves which were sufficient for barely 3 weeks. With the fiscal deficit running at 8.2%, and the internal debt being 5.6 % of GDP, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The TEAM: 

During the previous 10 years, PVN did not have any inclination towards economic issues. One thing he realized was that the economic problem, being complex and serious, a competent person must be installed as the Finance Minister. I. G. Patel, the former RBI Governor was the first choice, but when he declined, the mantle fell on Dr. Manmohan Singh. Singh was an eminent economist, and he had worked with the United Nations, been an RBI Governor, a Chief Economic Advisor, and the Head of the Planning Commission over separate tenures. A team of competent ministers and bureaucrats were put in place, which included, among others, Naresh Chandra as Cabinet Secretary, Amarnath Verma as Principal Secretary, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and others. 

Crucial Decisions: 

To overcome the serious economic challenges, the minority govt. had to take some quick short-term decisions. One such decision was to pledge the country’s entire gold reserves, while another was the devaluation of the rupee. The long-term decisions included the New Industrial Policy. 

  • Pledging of Gold:

To save the country from bankruptcy, the government had no choice but to pledge gold from its reserves. In the first phase, it was pledged through the State Bank of India on 4th July. In subsequent phases, it was done directly by RBI on 7th, 11th, and 18th July. Overall, 46.91 metric tonnes of gold was pledged to the Bank of England. On 10th July the media received the news. As usual, there was a hue and cry in parliament. Dr. Manmohan Singh explained that it was a fait accompli, and the decision was taken with due diligence and positive intent. However, in the international markets, India’s credibility rose, as financial institutions felt the country was making serious course corrections. That month, India received a loan of USD 221 Million.

  • Rupee Devaluation: 

Apart from the fiscal mismanagement by previous governments, the foreign exchange reserves were getting depleted due to the Gulf war. Saddam Hussein had attacked Kuwait, and the rising oil prices coupled with reduced remittances from overseas Indians started showing a strain on the foreign exchange front. 

Inadequate exports were the other major reason. The exchange rate of $1= Rs. 17.90 was not only high, but it also did not reflect the market reality. Indian products and services were expensive in the international market, thus affecting export earnings. This anomaly needed an immediate correction. 

Within 10 days of assuming office, on 1st July, the Indian Rupee was devalued against the US Dollar, Japanese Yen, Deutsche Mark, and the British Pound by 7-9%. The second devaluation was scheduled for 3rd July. The opposition, including the communists, were staunch critics of devaluation. There was stiff resistance in the ruling dispensation too. Devaluation was perceived as affecting the self-esteem of the country, as well as the government being in collusion with ‘capitalist’ institutions like IMF, World Bank, etc. PVN was under tremendous pressure and informed Dr. Manmohan Singh to stop the second one. When the finance minister contacted C. Rangarajan, the Governor of RBI, the latter said the decision has already been taken by 9 am. The horse was unbolted. To make the bitter truth palatable, the devaluation was renamed as exchange rate correction. The stock markets bounced back with full vigour and the economy started showing signs of recovery. By 1992, the INR exchange rate to the USD moved from 17.9 to 24.5. Subsidy for exports was cut, and to improve exports EXIM scrips were introduced, wherein exporters would get concessions for importing specific goods. This policy framework was done by Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P. Chidambaram, and the decision for this was taken within a day by PVN. 

  • The New Industrial Policy: 

Another major decision was the New industrial Policy which was crucial to economic recovery. PVN had kept the industries portfolio with him. Dr. Manmohan Singh wanted to present the New Industrial Policy as a part of the budget. However, the bureaucrats in the Industries ministry wanted the policy to be presented separately. Sensing that it will be faced with stiff opposition in the parliament, PVN played a smart game. His deputy, P.J. Kurien, (the State Minister of Industries) after the zero hour, requested the speaker of the Lok Sabha to permit him to place the New Industrial Policy before the house. A crucial document that paved the way for liberalization, scrapping the MRTPC act and the license Raj, was presented without much fanfare or debate. The chief architect, PVN did not utter a single word during the presentation. (He who knows does not speakHe who speaks does not know… Lao Tzu) 

Expert committees were formed to introduce fundamental changes in enabling sustained and accelerated growth in the economy. Raja Chelliah led a committee for Tax reforms, and M. Narasimham a committee for Banking Reforms. Their recommendations were accepted; tax rates were rationalized and private banks were allowed to function. 

Allowing private players to enter the banking sector was another major decision. Under normal circumstances, there would have been long debates challenging such a major decision. After all, any major change attracts a great deal of resistance. A great leader can spot an opportunity in a problem. The country was going through tumultuous times after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. As BJP was cornered, no party was in the mood to rock the boat. The banking sector was opened to ICICI, HDFC, AXIS, and other banks without much fanfare or debate. In 1993 the aviation sector was opened, and in 1994 the new Telecom policy was launched, paving the way for a mobile revolution. 

When he took over as the PM in June 1991, the country had foreign exchange reserves equivalent to Rs. 3000 Crores. While addressing the nation from the Red Fort on Independence Day in 1994, PVN proudly announced that this figure had reached Rs. 51,000 Crores and the country had averted a major financial crisis. 

Aristotle’s characteristics of Greek tragic heroes mention them as being virtuous, long-suffering, and having a tragic flaw. PVN was a polyglot with fluency in 10 languages. With his sharp intellect, he could fathom problems from multiple perspectives. He appointed competent ministers and bureaucrats to handle complex issues. If needed, he took quick decisions, be it the Rupee devaluation, or the New Industrial Policy. What looked impossible, a Herculean task, he achieved through the dictum, ‘politics is the art of the possible.’

He had to face monumental challenges: here was a man who had formed a government without a majority, there was no real support from within his party which had elected him as a leader, he had no cordial relationship with the first family, and opposition parties were baying for his blood with a series of no-confidence motions. He was aging, and at 70, he was suffering from diabetes, blood pressure, and had undergone a bypass surgery a year before he took over as the PM. He had to suffer it all alone. 

One of the tragic flaws that he could not resolve was the dilemma of accepting the diktats of the first family (unlike his protégé who succeeded him much later) or being a total rebel to walk his path.

Pamulparti Venkata Narasimha Rao passed away on 23rd December 2004. No other person within a short span of five years has brought in such sweeping reforms in the country. Forget the opposition parties, the Congress party disowned him. It was ensured that his corpse was neither brought to the Congress Party Head Office nor cremated in Delhi, and sadly, neither was any monument constructed in the capital for this great leader. The humiliation did not part him even in his death.

References

  1. Raoparv – Prashant Dixit
  2. To the Brink and Back, India’s 1991 Story – Jairam Ramesh
  3. 1991, How PV Narasimha Rao made History- Sanjay Baru
  4. Wikipedia 

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Ethically Speaking

“Wishing you many happy returns on your sixtieth birthday,” so saying, I called my friend, Mahesh. He replied, “Rajan thanks for the greetings, but to be frank, my birthday is on 5th December and not today, on 2nd April. For the purpose of saving one academic year, this date of 02nd April was indicated by my father on my school admission form.” The above is not an isolated event, it happened frequently.

During the Chemistry lab period in the PUC days, there were experiments on identifying an element defined by sequence; by performing the dry test, wet test, and then the confirmatory tests. The demonstrator used to tell us ‘during exams, don’t waste time on the first two tests; go straight to the confirmatory test, and if you get time, do the previous ones. Bypassing the system with false birth certificates or taking short cuts was the name of the game.

Engineering Drawing was one of the time-consuming subjects in college. Unlike the CAD/ CAM environment today, where designs are made on computers, we had to make elaborate engineering drawings. Each assignment made on an A2/A3 drawing sheet needed an elaborate setup of a drawing board, mini drafter, T-square, compass, divider, set square, etc. It used to take around 2-3 hours to complete an assignment. The practise of GT (Glass Tracing) among hostelites was quite common. The GT procedure was simple. An assignment completed by a sincere student was glass traced by other students. A table lamp was kept in a bucket covered with a glass sheet; the blank sheet was aligned over the completed sheet. The lit lamp helped the student trace the original and the assignment could be completed in no time. The general consensus among the student fraternity was that the guy who took all the effort to complete the drawing in the 1st angle, 3rd angle, and a sectional view, was an idiot, while the people who copied it in one-fifth the time were intelligent and smart.

In one humorous instance, one guy was so ‘meticulous’ that apart from tracing the drawing, he copied the name and the roll number of the original student! The scene is no different today, for several agencies offer ready-made projects for engineering students for a fee.

A certain lecturer used to share with his colleagues, his life-long ambition of becoming a Vice-Chancellor (VC) of a university. Over a while, he moved up the hierarchy of senior lecturer, reader, and finally became a professor. A post for a VC was advertised in the papers. He applied but came to know that, more than merit, caste and money played an important role in the recruitment for this position. He managed to raise around Rs 3 crores for this, yet he was shocked to see the post eventually going to the highest bidder.

Much later, an advertisement appeared for another VCs post. This time, he knew the crucial role of politicians and middlemen. He developed contacts, moved heaven and earth to raise around Rs. 5 crores; despite being questioned by his friends, from an ethics and ROI perspective. The attempt for this second time to the post also eluded him. He committed suicide later.

I used to believe that such respectable positions need not be advertised but were filled by selecting eminent people with exceptional credentials. As Nirad Chowdhury wrote in the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, an Indian’s faith in a bribe is infinite and unshakable. It is an infallible remedy for all workday inconveniences.

Academicians have used the terms ethics and morality interchangeably. Some people think that morality is personal and normative whereas ethics indicates the standards of good and bad as decided by community settings. It can be also looked at from a perspective of means and the ends. People have their own yardsticks in justifying their actions. As Robert Pirsig writes in the Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things? The three examples to illustrate the point are:

  1. Ratan Tata used to say, “Why should I spend time with bureaucrats in Delhi? They are supposed to do their work and I am supposed to do mine.” On the other hand, (the late) Dhirubhai Ambani had a different take. “You offer naivedya to God while visiting a temple. Why not deal with bureaucrats on a similar line?”
  2. The Karnataka Vidhana Soudha has an inscription on its façade: ‘Government’s work is God’s Work.’  I overheard a babu saying, “Anyway it is God’s work. Why should I?”
  3. A departmental store was run by two partners for 30 years. The 2nd generation was to take over the business. The first partner’s son who had passed out from an elite management institute asked his father, “We have learned all the aspects of running a business, the one topic I am not clear is about ethics. Can you elaborate on the same? The father explained, “it is quite elementary. Imagine a lady buys a dress for Rs. 1000 and while paying at the billing counter she inadvertently pays Rs, 2000. Now my son, the question of ethics comes, should we tell our partner or not.”

My niece Rupali Patil teaches in an upmarket public school in Whitefield, Bengaluru. She narrated some interesting anecdotes while conducting on-line examinations. The students are asked to keep the laptop at a specific angle to ensure they do not look at any material on their lap while writing answers. Parents are requested not to walk around or prompt the students while answering the question papers. Some parents have written papers themselves. One audacious father dared to sit underneath the table and prompt the answers. When asked how it was detected, I gleaned that the student used to normally score 10 out of 50, but scored 40 in that exam; he subsequently boasted to his friends how his father had helped him.

While websites like exam.net are used to ensure that students do not lose their focus on the screen, or use the second browser to get answers, by looking down; ingenious means are used to work around the system.

The school being in Whitefield, Bengaluru the following conjectures were thought of:

  1. Considering the location and the school fees, is it safe to assume that a majority of student’s families belong to the upper middle class, well-educated with Graduate/Post Graduate degrees?
  2. Is it safe to assume that the parents are working in renowned MNCs (Indian or International) with well-established guidelines on Vision, Mission, Values, and Ethics policies?  If so, should there be a divergence in behaviour between the professional life of a manager vis-à-vis that of a parent?

Education can be perceived as an end to realize one’s potential, or it can be simply a means to get a job in earning a livelihood. The former makes us look holistically at life, whereas the latter makes it transactional. Philosopher Immanuel Kant says that a rational human being is an end in himself and not a means to achieve something. When our attitude and behaviour are oriented towards means, quality becomes the main casualty.

Abraham Lincoln in his letter to his son’s headmaster wrote:

“Teach him if you can that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found.In school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him they are wrong!”

On a personal note, now when I call my friends, with trepidation I first ask “Before wishing you birthday greetings, is today your actual or official birthday?”

We set our own standards: “Jahaan hum khade rahtey hain; wahin se kataar shuru hoti hai!” – Wherever I (honorific) stand, the queue starts from there!.

Jai ho ‘Atmanirbhar’ Bharat!

References:

  1. Welcome to a world-class university education : M. Gautam Machiah, Deccan Herald, November 15, 2020
  2. Some midterm answer scripts leave teachers stumped: The Hindu, November 26, 2020
  3.  Image: https://www.123rf.com/photo_54708808_stock-vector-compass-rose-isolated-on-white.html

Know Thyself – An Inquiry into the Significance of Living

Perspective: At some point in our lives, some of us are faced with this eternal question of what is the true meaning of life? Followed by other questions like Why are we born? Where do we go when we die? Does the suffering end after death? What is the purpose of this life? Some of us then go deeper into religion & scriptures or move towards spirituality or just find a mission in life to carry on. There are very few who realise that the answer does not or cannot lie outside of us and they take up a journey inwards. This is the toughest journey that one gets on as most of the things that we assumed and believed in all our life, start to fall apart here. This journey is the one of solitude, not literally in terms of companionship but in terms of our true being. No one else can walk this path with us, we must take it alone. That makes this unknown path even more scary. To walk on this path one needs devotion and clarity or else we could easily be hoodwinked by the sidetracks that could make us believe that we are on the right track.

That is precisely why this forum was formed, to clear any doubts or questions that one confronts while on this path. To take this journey with an unfaltering devotion to truth, one needs a constant exposure to profound truths so that we don’t distract ourselves with spiritual materialism. If you resonate with this and would like to be part of this bi-monthly discussion between seekers, with no limits and bounds of religion, caste, nationality or even spiritual Gurus, you are welcome to join us.

When: Every 1st and 3rd Sunday at 1100 HRS India Time/Saturday 2230 HRS California Time – Zoom Session, Duration: 90 minutes

For Whom: the forum is for seekers who wish to delve deep into the existential dilemmas of living.

Session Facilitator: Rajan Parulekar

The forum is FREE and is not aimed at as an introductory session towards any paid programs.

Minimum age:  21 years.

What to expect or not to expect from the forum

1. The program is not of a prescriptive mode with quick-fix tips and techniques.

2. Irrespective of the number of sessions, no certificate shall be issued to the participants.

3. A Caveat for the trainers, counsellors and the coach fraternity; It is not a forum to propagate your offerings.

4. It is not a conventional training program with Power Point Presentations, You Tube Videos etc. It is based on the Socratic Method of deep questioning and exchange of experiential knowledge/wisdom. Participants would be expected to prepare 1-2 sincere questions for discussion prior to confirmation.

5. Conventional technique-based programs on Stress Management and Work-Life Balance, Conquest of Happiness etc. are covered in a separate forum. Participant Feedback

5. The forum is religion and belief agnostic. It can be joined irrespective of your personal philosophy, guru or a master.

6. The forum aims to enable the participants in finding answers to the existential dilemma of life by introspecting the values, beliefs, attitude and aspirations.

Registration: Please send an email stating your reason to join this forum, along with 1-2 questions to rajan@paradigm-info.com. Please share your preferred email id and WhatsApp number to facilitate communication only pertaining to this Forum. 

The blog articles below shall provide a snapshot of the philosophy of the forum meetings:

 Four Noble Truths in an age of uncertainty and anxiety

A different way of Curing Addictions – A Buddhist Perspective

Who is responsible for our actions?

Cutting through Spiritual Materialism

Relevance of Ambiguous Thinking in Challenging Times

Virtues of Boredom

For articles on other topics,  please visit: Blog Articles by Rajan Parulekar

Rajan Parulekar

His programs and coaching sessions have a rich blend of Western Management Techniques like EST, Who Am I, Transactional Analysis (TA), Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Gestalt Therapy, Emotional & Spiritual Intelligence & Eastern practices like Zen, Tao, Vipassana, Patanjali Yoga Sutra etc. He has conducted around 75 programs on Stress Management, Work-Life Balance. Flow, Conquest of Happiness etc.

He is a regular practitioner of Vipassana since 1986 and has attended around 10 courses including the Satipatthana Sutta till date. He was initiated into ZEN practice from Zen Master AMA Samy from Bodhi Zendo Kodaikanal.

He also provides Coaching, Mentoring & Counselling in areas like Emotional Conflict, Stress Management, Finding a Purpose etc.

Corporate Programs:

LInkedIN Profile:

Relevance of Four Noble Truths in an Age of Uncertainty and Anxiety

The first sermon Buddha delivered after enlightenment was on the Four Noble Truths which are:

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering
  3. The truth of the goal
  4. The truth of the path to the goal

Quite often it is felt that Buddha was pessimistic and was against the good things in life when he uttered the first noble truth that ‘Life is Suffering’ (Dukkha). It is not so. The term suffering can be interpreted in terms of day-to-day anxieties, irritations, etc. When we are all by ourselves, the thought of something missing, that we are not our ideal self, the current problems, start troubling us. The truth is: we do not think, the thoughts happen to us by default; without our choice. These random thoughts include the pain of earning a living, keeping the near and dear ones (and also the professional colleagues) happy, job uncertainties, etc. For those going through an existential dilemma, the pain of being me, the purpose of my life, Who Am I maybe also a part of constant irritation. The constant chattering of the mind from past to future is THE first noble truth, the truth of suffering!

How do we address this perennial irritation? We feel by working hard in our existing jobs or business, we may be able to address the uncertain future. Some people feel that the latest mobile or car may make them happy. Those with an intellectual/spiritual disposition of mind may resort to reading self-help books or attend spiritual retreat/personality development programs. People work on these different options hoping to calm their chattering minds. But beyond a superficial feeling of well-being, the pain resurfaces!

Do self-help books really help? In the US alone, self-help is around a $50 Billion industry. Despite being the pioneers in self-help along with the latest objects of desire, the country has an alarming crime and divorce rate, with a pervasive feeling of loneliness. Bhutan, a country without a commercial self-help industry is considered as one of the happiest countries. Incidentally research shows that people who are dependent on self-help books invariably tend to buy another book within the next 18 months! Paradoxically it is only the (fake) Gurus who make money, leaving their subjects poor, and the latter looking out for new techniques all the time! Our constant endeavour to drive away the pain either by acquiring new objects or self-improvement techniques is the root cause of suffering; the second Noble Truth.

After running on this hedonistic/spiritual treadmill for long; somehow the mind gets exhausted. You say to yourself: enough is enough, and stop trying! You accept the way you are; you accept your chattering mind. And lo behold, magic happens! There is a gap between consecutive thoughts. Your thought process slows down. Now you start seeing gaps, the emptiness between two thoughts, and you start arriving at peace with yourself. Your mind shifts from the past/future treadmill to the present moment! This is the third noble truth, the truth of the goal.

But these gaps are intermittent, ephemeral. If you start craving for the gaps, you go back to the first noble truth. The truth of suffering!

The media has conditioned us in making us believe that multitasking is good and that one should try to compress as many activities in the shortest possible time, which can make us productive and in turn lead to happiness. Nothing can be farther from the truth than this view. While watching TV, if a commercial appears, immediately we turn to the remote. We drink coffee while watching TV, we read a newspaper while having breakfast, and we WhatsApp messages during meals. We are trying to keep our minds busy to avoid the pain of the chattering mind. Most of these activities we do are in an auto-pilot mode: fingers on the mobile, with eyes on the TV screen, while sipping tea; but with the mind chattering at the speed of light about an important client meeting!

Let us understand the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path to the goal. Imagine you are making a cup of tea. Pour the water into the kettle, feel the sensation. Watch the water boiling and feel the steam and the warmth. Pour the tea powder into the kettle, smell the aroma of tea leaves in the boiling water. Allow the tea to percolate, watch your mind while pouring the tea slowly in the cup. Sit comfortably in your chair, and start drinking it with mindfulness. Observe the sensations at your lips, the tongue, and the way it travels down your food pipe. While doing this, you are in the present moment all the time and appreciating the tea with all the five senses: the aroma, the taste,  the colour, the warmth of the cup as well as sensation while tea is going down the gullet. When you perform every action in a similar mindful way, you are disconnecting the chattering mind and that is the fourth noble truth: the truth of the path to the goal! Practise even ordinary activities with total awareness and complete attention. Let it be choiceless.

All actions are intrinsically noble: sending a mail to a client or a WhatsApp message to a friend is in no way superior to cleaning the sink or washing the clothes! You do not have to outsource the latter activities to servants thinking them (both the activity as well as the servant) to be inferior! Every activity whether small or big, if done mindfully leads to salvation! And that is the truth of the path to the goal.

When we are multitasking with a chattering mind hovering in the past or the future, we are nowhere; acting like a zombie, no different than a robot – but perennially suffering. A robot in a way is still better, at least it does not suffer!

When we are doing one task at a time with complete awareness, we are in the present moment. That is the journey from nowhere to now and here, a paradigm shift from confusion to enlightenment! Be Happy!

Use These Masks with Discretion!

“Will you be giving us a certificate for the Stress Management program?” I was perplexed by this question from several participants, more so when it was to be a two-hour online session. To one of them, a lecturer, I asked “Why are you so keen on having a certificate? Do you think it will help you manage your stress?” She replied, “It looks good on my CV.”

I have been attending the 10-day Vipassana and Satipatthana courses since 1986 and till date neither the participants have asked for, nor has the Vipassana International Academy felt like giving away the certificates; the Vipassana program had a greater impact on my life than my formal education, that too without any certification. Mark Twain said, “I did not prevent my school from getting me educated.”

The conventional masks, the N95 and its variants are used as a prevention against COVID-19… and then there are credential masks comprising of academic credentials and professional achievements.

Credentials, certifications etc. have their validity and relevance to set benchmarks, SOPs, etc. and need to be adhered to while selecting a candidate or a vendor. Essential in professional life, they may indicate a person’s potential, not necessarily his accomplishments. There is a problem with too much emphasis on credentials.

There are two types of errors people tend to make either about themselves or of others.

With a degree or certification from the right type of institute, one feels competent. People also tend to judge others’competence with the same type of masks. The media also adds to the credential mask hype by taking out the rating surveys. I wonder whether it is for the potential customers (the students) or for the vendors (the institutes). It may be for both.

Quite often we tend to equate a person with the credential mask one wears and it may lead to errors like the examples below:  

  1. Vinod Mehta was one of India’s most influential editors with publications like The Sunday Observer, The Indian Post and Outlook. He barely scraped through with a third-class degree in B.A. He said while recruiting a copy editor, “I always make it a point not to recruit a copy editor based on his/her marks in English literature as I myself did not score good marks in English at any level.”

The problem with the masks is that after some time we fall in love with the masks which are our credentials, be it the degree, the CTC, the designation or our possessions. It starts in childhood with marks and without awareness the ‘r’ in marks gets transformed into an ‘s,’ other alphabets remaining the same. As Nirad Chaudhary says, “Marks are a stark reminder of India’s slavish colonial past and a pointer to being an academically third-class country.” (Nirad C Chaudhary – Thy Hand Great Anarch, 1987)

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis – The father of Indian Statistics told Pandit Nehru that if the marks based evaluation on the legacy of Macaulay system were not to be scrapped, India would degenerate into a world of toppers sans any skills to survive in a competitive world.

Credentials are certainly important in professional life but what happens if they are applied at a personal level too? Shweta, 28, with an MBA Finance working in a bank is looking for an alliance. As her CTC is Rs. 12 lakhs, her expectation is that of a groom, (apart from a PG degree) with a minimum CTC of Rs. 15 lakhs. Now if a candidate is switching from a job of Rs. 12 lakhs to Rs. 15 lakhs that is fine, but can the same yardstick be applied to one’s personal life? What happens if the husband were to lose his job after marriage or if he were to start his business with uncertain income for the first few years?

Imagine a scenario where the guy, a Software Engineer from a MNC gets engaged to a lady, a Program Manager working in a local company. Based on his higher CTC, he tells his fiancée: “Based on your performance you will be promoted to the position of a wife in six months,” to which she responds: “Your people skills are under review. Post-marriage you shall undergo training for 2 years and based on your performance, your eligibility for fatherhood shall be considered.”

Can a conventional yardstick of evaluating a person on his credentials lead to an error in judgement? Rahul Sankritayan, considered as the Father of Indian Travelogue literature, was never considered fit to teach at any Indian University as he did not even finish matriculation. The University of Leningrad appointed him as a Professor of Indology and neighbouring Sri Lanka appointed him as a Professor Emeritus at Colombo University and permanent head of faculty of Buddhism Studies and Pali. It was Nehru who intervened and bent the rules for this polyglot and polymath genius.

Quite often our perceptions create our reality. Having attended a week-long program at Harvard or IIM, some executives put that in prominence on their LinkedIn profile creating a perception of a full-time program. (After all marketing, advertising and branding are nothing but creating perceptions and illusions!) As long as we are aware that it is the requirement of a role and that prevarication of the truth is the same as a lie – that is fine.

When you go for a job interview or a sales call meeting with your client, you need to be well dressed, focus on your strength, and say the best things about yourself, the company and your product range. Sometime during job interview when you are asked about your weaknesses, executives project them in such a way that they are perceived as strengths. Some candidates tell me, “One of my weaknesses is that I work too hard and am not able to devote time to my family,” or “I am a taskmaster focussed on numbers all the time and not being able to focus on my hobbies.” The irony is you can see the real person beneath such masks.

But can these masks really help us when we go through tough times or an existential crisis? A well-dressed successful CEO once visited a Zen master to address his personal anguish and frustration. He started his corporate jargon focussing on his strengths. The Zen Master asked him whether he is ready for a cup of tea. As the Zen master was pouring tea in the cup, the CEO went on sharing his success stories ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The Zen master went on urging him to talk more. The CEO being in his element, never realized that the cup was full, still the master continued pouring; and tea overflowing in the saucer. The CEO could take it no longer when he saw tea dripping on the ground. Unable to control his irritation, the CEO said, “Master, this is terrible. If you cannot pour tea into the cup properly, how can you solve my problems?” The master replied, “You are like this overflowing cup with your achievements and miseries. Unless you empty your cup and let go of your mask, there is no possibility of a profound change.”

A N95 or Credential mask is essential when we are away from home and interacting with strangers, customers, vendors or colleagues. It is easier to take off a regular mask when we are back home. With Work from Home (WFH) becoming the new normal, several executives find it difficult to let go of the credential mask in a personal capacity. An emotionally intelligent person is the one who takes his work seriously but not himself.

So just let go off the baggage, the credential mask… neatly summed up by this poem.

Guy In the Glass

When you get what you want and you struggle for pelf

and the world makes you king for a day,

then go to the mirror and look at yourself

and see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your mother, your father or wife

whose judgment upon you must pass,

but the man, whose verdict counts most in your life

is the one staring back from the glass

He’s the fellow to be pleased

never mind all the rest.

For he’s with you right to the end,

and you’ve passed your most difficult test

if the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,

and think you’re a wonderful guy,

but the guy in the glass says you’re only a bum

if you can’t look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world,

down the highway of years,

and take pats on the back as you pass.

But your final reward will be heartache and tears

if you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

– Anonymous

Never judge a book by its cover or a person by his mask!

Have you found your niche?

“Charles, you care for nothing but shooting dogs and rats; you will be a disgrace to not only yourself but to your family too.” This was a father’s prophecy about his son. The father wanted his son to be a doctor like him. Charles entered Edinburgh University for medicine at his father’s behest, found it unattractive, later joined Cambridge, and earned an undistinguished bachelor’s degree in theology. He had no firm idea what to do. Charles was an aimless youth at 22. He wanted to do something different. He loved flora and fauna but did not know whether that love could be transformed into a livelihood.

Captain Fitzroy on his ship HMS Beagle was looking out for a naturalist. Charles asked for his father’s permission. His father refused but with a caveat, “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go on the discovery, I shall give my consent.” Neither the father, nor the captain were ready to grant permission to Charles.

There are two approaches of developing one’s career, the conventional approach and the niche-based approach.

  1. The conventional way of selecting a profession for self or for others is primarily decided by the demand for that profession, coupled with tangibles like salary and perks. No wonder Medicine, Engineering and MBAs among others make the cut.
  2. A niche-driven approach on the other hand is decided by differentiating oneself from the crowd by focussing on a niche . It is defined as a comfortable or a suitable position in life or employment. Alternatively, it also means a shallow recess especially in a wall to display something of value – a statue or other ornament. (please refer the image). Let us see what happened to Charles, the aimless youth discussed earlier?

When Charles approached Captain Fitzroy, the physiognomist in Captain Fitzroy said, “I doubt anyone having a nose like yours can possess sufficient energy and determination for the long voyage.”

His uncle drove thirty miles to convince Charles’ father to grant him permission to undertake the assignment on HMS Beagle as a naturalist.

The Beagle Voyage which included the circumnavigation of globe would be the making of the 22 year-old Darwin. Five years of physical hardship of mental rigour imprisoned within the ship’s walls, offset by the wide-open opportunities in the Brazilian jungles and the Andes Mountains, were to Darwin an eye opener in finding his muse. It took him 22 years to publish his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in The Origin of Species.

Is it necessary to be a school or a college topper or those in the top percentile rankings to find one’s niche? Quite often the converse is true as ‘brilliant’ students have the best choices in selecting the conventional options in career and institution.

What can happen when one selects a career in a conventional way but is at the bottom of a pyramid in a specific career stream? Getting a job may look easy but one may be competing with a very large number of aspirants. For example: Rakesh had scored 100/100 in Sanskrit in SSLC. Having felt he had a flair for Sanskrit he decided to pursue his college education in that direction. He completed his BA in Sanskrit from Ruia College in Mumbai.

At this juncture he had two choices in further studies – to continue his studies in Sanskrit or look out for a qualification which is marketable in the job market. He decided to pursue a MBA in Finance instead. After spending around Rs. 8 lakhs in fees itself what can be the likely scenario when he passes out two years later?

For a person who wishes to do a M. Tech in Structural Engineering, a minimum qualification of B.E Civil is necessary. Likewise for a M.S. in surgery, a basic qualification of MBBS is mandatory. So, when a person pursues a MBA in Finance with Sanskrit as graduation the basic competency level expected of the student is that of Class 12th, as a MBA is agnostic to one’s field of graduation.

Conventional wisdom says that one has a wide range of job opportunities after doing a MBA. The opportunities are large but so is the competition. Annually about 360,000 students graduate from 4000 B-Schools of which 61% are unemployable due to skill gaps and low work experience.

Keeping those depressing numbers aside, can Rakesh compete with students from Premier Institutes or those with Engineering and Commerce backgrounds? It is not impossible, but it is a Herculean task.

What would happen if he were to pursue Sanskrit for his PG? In the absence of clear data let us assume that the number of students opting for Sanskrit may be 1% of MBA students that is around 3600. For Rakesh it would have been much easier to be in the 95th percentile after his MA and in the 99th percentile with a Ph.D. A lot of research happens in Sanskrit in US and German universities. By differentiating himself and finding a niche, Rakesh could have had a sense of purpose too.

From a financial perspective too, the cost of pursuing a MA in Sanskrit would have been at less than 10% the cost of a MBA. In case of a Ph.D. he could have explored UGC fellowships or opportunities in US or German universities where considerable research in Sanskrit is possible.

An example of a niche-based career is of my friend, Christopher Jayakaran who passed PUC, third class in 1962. With hardly any worthwhile career options, his father’s friend suggested him to take up a course in Geology. He completed his M.Sc in Geology at Presidency College in Madras by topping in the University. He worked for an NGO called ‘Action for Food Production’ for 7 years and for more than 25 years in different countries in Africa which include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone etc. He is an eminent Hydrogeologist and a Paleontologist. His Tamil book In Search of Ancestors which is on evolution of man based on fossil evidence has run into six editions.

Why are people in general wary of pursuing niche fields?

  1. Obsession for Security: Education is normally pursued in order to get a job. The market demand is thought of. In the post-covid world there is no security either in a job or in one’s qualifications per se.
  2. Managerial Aspirations: Indians in general prefer to have a managerial title early in their career sacrificing expertise in a specific domain.

How to find your niche?

Around 30 years back, I came across an excellent concept in finding ones niche, based on cybernetic principles which was on identifying one’s core competency and focusing on a specific niche where the strength can be leveraged to maximum extent.

Werner Brandes was a German MBA Graduate who was working in a consulting firm but did not have career growth in spite of working hard in that organization for more than 10 years. He was unable to get good offers elsewhere. He was a mediocre student throughout his academic life and passed out from a tier-3 B-school.

The conventional wisdom of competing with others was not giving any results (like the example of Rakesh discussed above). His work profile was mapped for 15 different competencies. Werner was below average in all save one, which was on Industry Setup in rural areas. When Werner was pointed out that this was his niche. He asked, “How can I get a job with such a small niche?” He was advised to start his own consulting in this field and as he was in the top 5% of this ultra-specialized area of business consulting, slowly he was perceived as an expert in this field. Business started growing. Being a sunrise sector wherever the data was not available, his customers helped him in providing the necessary details.

Fascinated by this counterintuitive concept, I launched a program called Strategy for Quantum Growth. After 4-5 programs I had to withdraw as most of the participants did not want a long-term strategy but a new job which paid them 3-5K more.

One crucial difference between the conventional and the niche-based strategy is the type of growth. In case of the former it is logarithmic growth – where it is easier to get a good well-paying job immediately after graduation but after a few years the growth may taper off. In case of niche areas there is a considerable struggle initially but after a few years when the market perceives you as specialist, the growth becomes truly phenomenal and is termed as exponential growth. ( Please refer the graphs below) You are considered as a pioneer and get a first-mover advantage.

Log_Growthexponential-growth

Conventional Approach                                                         Niche-Based Approach

Whether in business, profession or a job; there are some who go on competing  against  a vast majority in a commoditized market as if running on a treadmill and getting exhausted. On the contrary, the likes of  Christopher, Werner Brandes or Charles Darwin though not brilliant in their school days in the conventional sense were able to find their niche. Have you found yours?

Two roads diverged in a wood and I…and  I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost.