Be Empathetic – Lessons from my dad

My father was a great teller of tales. However, neither he nor I realized this for much of his life.  If I had asked my father tell me a story which I’ve don’t recall ever doing he’d have likely said, “I don’t tell stories.” However, he did. And darn good ones at that. Only they were narrated while we waited at railway stations or airports or while he was dressing up for work or waiting for dinner to be served. Many of them were just vignettes – episodes from his own life, that it took me many years to figure were stories – darn good ones – well worth repeating. And today as I share them with my daughters or at times with unsuspecting colleagues, I understand how they’ve shaped me.

My favorite story was my dad’s recounting of how as a young man he’d attended a village play  and particularly his re-telling of a specific scene from the play. My dad as with many Indians’ of the pre-WWII generation grew up in a small village. Entertainment meant the occasional village fair, a rare trip to town and most often a religious celebration which would include makeshift theater featuring song and dance. Plays, much like Indian movies of the early forties, were largely based on religious themes – often stories from one of the two great Indian epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. 

For those not familiar with the Indian epics, the Ramayana is the tale of the hero-king Rama, who is banished to 14 years of forest exile, on the eve of his coronation. His life in exile, including the search for his kidnapped wife Sita culminating in the epic good vs evil battle with the demon Ravana and his triumphant return to the throne, forms the arc of the story line. Rama’s father, the old king Dasaratha is forced to exile Rama, due to an IOU – a promise he made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi (he had three) who sought the throne for her own son.

Vanavas

Photo: Margarent Freeman

Village theater, even today in India, is often a makeshift stage, with a curtain or cloth draped to separate the backstage from the action up front. The actors heavily made up, rely on their costumes and loud voices to make up for the lack of scenery or other props. With stories such as the Ramayana, the audience which knows every scene needs little else.

As the curtain pulls back, the old king Dasaratha is reclining on the royal couch. My father’s voice chokes up as he narrates the scene. When I was much younger, I could never understand why dad choked up thus. We knew how the story ended! My dad’s eyes fill up and he’s not able to speak any further. With some nudging and prodding, he starts again. “Rama, Rama, Rama” the King calls out – loudly first, his voice filled with anguish and then softly. He gets off the couch and staggers forward as if wanting to go after his son. He continues, calling out “Rama, Rama, Rama” in a voice that breaks and gets weaker by the moment. And then he collapses and dies right there.

By this time, my father’s eyes, still wet, begin to twinkle – as though he’s thought of something naughty. “Then the crowd goes wild – they clap, cheer, hoot, jump up to their feet. “Encore, encore” a lone voice is heard. Then the crowd picks it up and shouts itself hoarse.” My dad is back in the crowd himself. Then the actor, playing the dead King, rises – steps back and begins again “Rama, Rama, Rama” and goes through the whole scene, crying, staggering, calling out and dropping dead. The crowd can’t have enough. By now my dad and I are both laughing out loud. I never tired of hearing this story and would ask my dad often to narrate it.

Yesterday when my younger daughter asked me, for a school project, to tell her what was happening in Palestine, I started to recount the tale of Israel. But in a moment, my own eyes were filled with tears – hot tears of anger and frustration at the real and perceived injustices. The same tears flow just as easily when I narrate the tale of Abhimanyu the young prince from the Mahabharata, cut down in his prime by eight great warriors, who trapped and ambushed him. While “sad songs say so much” as Elton John put it, it’s not just sad news or unfairness that brings me tears to my eyes. I could just as easily be watching Martin Luther King Jr. assert “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or listening to Eminem crooning “Mockingbird” to his daughter Haley. Like my father crying and laughing at the same time while recounting the encore rendition of the death of Dasaratha, I too find myself emoting easily.

Be empathetic” is the lesson my dad taught me that day and as my kids wipe my tears and try to coax me to continue, I realize how that one death scene has shaped me!


Five years ago today, my father passed away. The good news was that I got to spend a lot more time with my father, the last five years of his life – even as he and my mother struggled with his Parkinson’s Disease. The bad news is that no amount of time would have been enough. An earlier draft of this article appeared on Medium.

Should I start my own business?

Should I start my own business?” If you have ever found yourself asking this question, you are not alone. And rarely does this question arise by itself — on its heels, many more rush in. “How do I know it’s the right thing? What’s the first thing I should do?” A simple search on Amazon or Google with the words “Starting your own business” provides 738 books and over a million hits respectively — in a sense, this choice of plenty only seems to add more questions beginning with, ‘Where do I start?’ The best answer to this question is the simple one — start with yourself!

Before you try to figure out, “How do I raise money, or should I get a patent first or do I need partners?” the first step to answer the question should you even start your own business, is to better understand yourself. While some reflection is needed, this is not so much a philosophical or metaphysical exercise as much as answering three simple questions about yourself. You may have never taken the time to think about it and even if you have asked yourself one or more of these questions, never had the opportunity to step back and answer them. Certainly, once you start your own business, you will not have the luxury of time to answer these in any detail.

N.S. Raghavan, former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys, narrates a story about a young man who approached him seeking advice. “I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?” When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!” To dive in, or to ‘Just do it!’, as the ad exhorts us, is easy — staying the course, not drowning and not ruing it along the way — is the hard part. Let’s ask ourselves those three simple questions.

Passion

Ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this? Will I feel as passionate about this a week from now? A year or five years from now?” If the answer is anything other than yes, you might want to keep that resume polished. When you ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this?” — ‘this’ could be a product — a low maintenance, low-cost, yet effective water purifier that four-fifths of the world needs; it could be a service — ball room dancing instruction for high-schoolers; it could be a concept — helping farmers in your hometown reach customers worldwide directly — or nearly evangelical — fresh water to every village in your state/country — it could be anything, as long as the fire of passion within you burns undiminished for long periods with little or no kindling. This is a good question to ask first and have answered in the affirmative before starting your own business. Do not confuse passion with being right or knowing something — passion is primarily believing and wanting. Once you start your business, you will learn more ways of being wrong than you’d thought possible.

Risk-taking

Being an entrepreneur, which is what you’d be if you start a business, is a risky proposition — probably not as risky as skydiving or crossing a busy road in Bangalore during the evening commute. Most businesses last longer than a skydive and are fraught with challenges. So the next question to ask yourself is how risk averse you are.

Risk means many things to many people. Most people think primarily of financial risk — this, while certainly measurable, may be the least important. Often there will be others to bear the financial risk with you.

However, the time you personally invest, the emotional energy that would be required of you individually and most importantly, your self-worth, will be the bigger risks you will be taking.

These will be largely immeasurable but have far greater import on the rest of your life. So if you have never taken off for the weekend on a whim, usually get to the airport three hours ahead of schedule and have never run a yellow light, it is worth figuring out what your risk appetite is.

Perseverance

Call it whatever you want — doggedness, perseverance or relentlessness — to be an entrepreneur means continuing in the face of constant discouragement by the world around you.

Often it would seem as though everyone but you feels it makes no sense to continue and yet you persist. Investment bankers who have yet to begin shaving will offer you advice. Your spouse, your engineering manager (and her spouse), that cheeky long-haired fellow in customer support not to mention your suppliers and even customers will question, critique and challenge you.

So if you haven’t been called pig-headed more than once in your life or find you cannot last through one session of working through the “simple” income-tax form or are discouraged by having to make the same presentation for the 17th time, some work may be needed in this area.

If you answered in the affirmative to the passion and perseverance questions, you are ready to start a business.

Should you actually start one, your chances of being successful at it or even enjoying the journey, will be determined by your answer to the risk-taking question. Luckily, for us, unlike the Prince of Denmark, it’s a little easier to answer the question, “To begin or not to begin?”

This article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine in Dec 2007.

Keep your needs simple – Lessons from my dad

Bench

Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight

“Why do you take the bus? Couldn’t you at least take an auto (3-wheeler cab)?”

My father never stopped asking his friend, a Gujarati Jain gentleman, this question each time he visited. Even the times he did come to our doorstep in an auto, my father whispered to me conspiratorially, “He probably took the bus to Adyar and took the auto for the last kilometer.

The said gentleman, had like my dad, landed in Chennai as a teen with less than Rs. 10 in his pocket. He’d then gone on to amass a considerable fortune in the plastics business. Yet, he maintained a disarmingly simple, nearly spartan, lifestyle. While my father pulled his friend’s leg about his frugality, his own actions were not all that different.

As kids we were always embarrassed, when my father would order idlisambar – steamed rice cakes with spicy lentil – at even the fanciest of restaurants. Likewise we were flummoxed that he’d check in at the 5-Star Taj hotel with his boss, but choose to spend the night at his sister’s duplex in Karol Bagh. It took us more than twenty years to try and get him to wear anything other than the white shirt and pant that he wore every day to work – even then we only managed to get him try solid pastel color shirts!

My dad lived and breathed his belief to keeping his needs simple. Without my realizing it he’d trained me from day one to be an entrepreneur. Not that I was a good student. In my first foray at being an entrepreneur, I blew nearly $250 (yep, dollars) on business cards. Let’s just say I was a slow learner. But luckily I returned to my roots – when we bootstrapped our first startup. We didn’t buy a computer, we didn’t hire a coder – we began pitching customers. We kept it simple – emails and presentations. We operated out of my co-founder’s apartment and held day jobs while we tried to land our first paying customer.

The lesson I learned was not just frugality but to keep every element of life (and business) simple.

Keep your 

  • business simple, so others understand it. Stay focused
  • offerings simple, so customers just get it
  • pricing simple so buying what you sell is easy
  • cash tracking simple – know where it goes, what you need and have
  • organization simple – so your team is clear about their roles & what’s expected of them
  • life simple – early to bed, early to rise, love, affection & exercise

Thanks dad!

Experience Matters – Lessons from my dad

“I can line up ten old and experienced fools in front of you this evening.”

Experience

Photo Credit: shrutibiyani cc

My father always began his story with this line. As the professional CEO of a family-owned business, one of the challenges my father had to contend with was the different working styles of the younger generation. The speaker in this instance was one of the founder’s grandsons, who was being groomed to run the business.

The discussion was about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a potential new employee that they’d just interviewed. My father, a big believer in hiring the best person for the job, had expressed the thought that this particular candidate was not experienced enough.

My father’s contention was the young clearly had a big advantage, in both the energy they brought and in not being tied down to the way things were done. But for their business, a fast-growing company in a commodity market, experience mattered and could just not be replaced.

Thereupon a debate ensued on the relative merits of youth versus experience, before the young executive made this assertion about old fools. My father always laughed when he recounted the passion and vehemence with which his young protege made this statement. His response always was that no amount of education – whether football, swimming or sex education in a classroom was as practical as getting out in the real world (or in that field or pool) and experiencing it.

Many years later, when hiring in my first managerial job in California or my startup in India, I found this to be repeatedly true. The fresh college grads, almost were always smarter, had studied stuff that we had not even heard of and thought of absolutely new ways to accomplish things often getting things done just because they didn’t know it couldn’t be.

Yet like with good design (or a good meal) no amount of studying prepares us as having done it before – ideally more than once. Riding a bicycle or banking a car on the curve or setting up a website or negotiating with a Japanese customer all works much better once you’ve done it before.

My father hired more than a hundred folks, with absolutely no experience – often young men who were looking for their first break. Several of them are running their own businesses or in leadership roles today. Nevertheless, he taught me, that for many roles or jobs, experience trumps all. The trick is knowing when you can’t do without it!

My father would have turned 85 yesterday.