Get your hands dirty and other lessons from a friend

You might want to keep your hands in your pockets.

I think I’ve always gesticulated with my hands and I never realized it but I also am a toucher. I touch people when I talk to them. I’d been in grad school for about two months and met Marcel, a fellow grad student in the same department, but working for a different professor. I can’t recall how we struck up a friendship, we couldn’t have been more different. Marcel was this serious Dutch guy with a Masters studying computational Material Science. I had been voted – most likely to be hurt in a political dustup and not graduate – while at BHU.

A couple of months after we’d  become friends, Marcel took me aside and told me, “ Western men don’t usually like to be touched by other men!” I didn’t realize that I had been not just waving my hands but clasping hands or otherwise touching the guys I was talking to. Coming from India, where it’s common to see two guys holding hands or hands across each other’s shoulders, the concept of personal space, was a little alien to me.  I think I was aghast, when Marcel recommended using my pockets to hold my hands. Well that was only the first of many lessons I was to learn from Marcel over the four years we were in grad school together.

Walk in the wilderness Marcel introduced me to hiking. In fact once we even took my unsuspecting mom on a gruelling 5 mile hike in Briones National Park in Northern California. I’ll never forget the day, he let a lizard that was sunning itself on a trail, crawl on to his hand to admire it. We spent days camping in the rain on Pt. Reyes National Park. Having lived all my life in cities and having grown up in India, I’d lost the connect to nature and land – that I saw my grandparents have in rural India and Marcel helped me rediscover in America. Both of our research work, meant hours cooped up in a basement, often in a dark room with a microscope or photo chemicals in my case or in an attic warren for him. So getting out there in nature, spending time walking or even just lying in a tent in pouring rain, taught me to both take a break and reconnect with nature as well as return invigorated to the work at hand. Through out my subsequent startups, most of my 1:1s I’ve had walking in a park in Bangalore and in an open school playground. Stay connected to nature, appreciate and engage with the outdoors is a lesson that I’ve learned from Marcel.

Don’t let little or big things stop you Many months after I met Marcel is when I learned that he did not hear so good in one of his ears. Of course that explained why he prefered to always walk one side when we hiked or otherwise did things together. This ear went from bad to worse till he had to have surgery many years later to try to fix his hearing in addition to using electronic aids. Yet many of our most fun times together was when he played the piano, which he did a great job of – whether for Christmas carolling or at a dinner party. Conferences meant giving talks, attending more and networking. From Marcel’s music or enjoyment of the piano, you could never tell that he was hampered in any way – so he did not let little or in this instance big things around his hearing from doing the things he loved or being able to do his professional roles. So on days when I’m throwing a snit for not getting the right sort of pencil or getting good copy writers I have to remind myself of what I learned – don’t let the little or big things stop me from doing what needed to or wanted to get done.

Get your hands dirty For a guy who’s research involving electronically computing phase diagrams from first principles, Marcel could fix cars like a mechanic. He bought a fixer-upper in Richmond-Berkeley border and really fixed it up – doing carpentry, plumbing and a great deal of gardening. And he could cook up a pretty good storm. Before meeting him, I’d have had a hard time fixing anything beyond checking if the darn thing was plugged in. By no means am I any good at plumbing, electrical work, dry walling or any of the other manly contractor jobs – but I’ve gotten to be darn good cook (even if I say so myself), a semi-decent do it yourself (DIY-er) and odd jobs guy. More importantly I got to appreciate the value of being able to do such work and the people who are good at it. Many years later in my first startup this lesson got reinforced, when we build several teams of sharp kids, but few of whom had actually gotten their hands dirty, building stuff. Marcel was a maker before the Maker movement. I’d like to think i get my hands more dirty these days, and the credit for that goes to Marcel.

Thank you Marcel, for being such a wonderful friend. I don’t think I’d have completed Engineering Mathematics or graduated but for your help and for all the life lessons you’ve taught me. I’m grateful to have you in my life.


This is the sixth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

2 thoughts on “Get your hands dirty and other lessons from a friend

  1. Pingback: Answering uncomfortable questions and others lessons from mentors | Design of Business

  2. Pingback: Taking risks and other lessons from a mentor | Design of Business

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