Be Forgiving – Lessons from my dad

“Look at the boy – short & dark. He wants to go places and thinks too much of himself.”

Photographs of my dad taken in his mid twenties, still show him slim as a teenager. The pictures show an intense lad with twinkling eyes. In his wedding pictures with his kohl lined eyes he cuts a dashing figure. By the time he got to his early forties he is at his most suave – despite the long, hairy sideburns, that make him look like a young Isaac Asimov! However my father, I suspect, always felt a little self conscious about his complexion and height. So when his uncle said these words he was cut to the quick.

My father had lost his own father when he was barely fifteen. With a widowed mother, a still in high-school elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister, my father did not have it easy. So he came to city, barely 16 to seek help from his father’s brother. His uncle had already made it big at an insurance firm and with no children of his own had few other commitments. On the day my father had finally picked up courage to ask his uncle for help to pay for college, is when this incident happened. It was a typical, sultry afternoon in Madras (“the city”) and his uncle was sitting in a large swing in the central hall of his house, gently swinging himself after lunch as he received some visitors. My dad had laid down in one corner of the room, to get some sleep. The stress of working up his courage to ask for his uncle’s help,being declined and the hot afternoon had all rendered him half asleep.

My father may have nodded off, but these words certainly woke him up and they rankled. Forty years later, as my dad narrated this incident to me, he recalled that his first thoughts were “I’ll prove to this man what I’m worth. Who the hell does he think he is?” Of course, he continued to pretend that he was asleep and said nothing to his uncle that day. Less than two weeks later, with a friend’s help, he “ran away” to Delhi, traveling on a free 3rd class servant pass that 1st class passengers got. Only his mom knew where he had gone.

Less than two years later, my father returned – a year in Delhi and an eventful one in Shimla had instilled great confidence in him, some money in his pocket and a steady job and paycheck as an auditor in a reputable chartered accountant firm. And all this with just a high school diploma and an apprenticeship. He headed straight to his uncle’s house, eager to flaunt his new found success.

“The moment I entered my uncle’s house and saw him, still seated on that swing – I was taken aback. He had aged so much in the two years!” My father’s voice quivered at the recollection. “He was a mere shadow of his former self. I was ashamed, that I had even thought of telling him off – of having actually looked forward to showing him how wrong he had been about me. I felt really small and petty minded. I didn’t say any of what I have thought of saying.”

It was in that moment that my father had the realization, that he shared with me, all those years later.

“Success is fleeting. Don’t carry a grudge and be forgiving.”

Be Humble – Lessons from my dad

One particular story my father had told me numerous times when I was a teenager, was about his encounter with a money lender. This was the first and only time I had ever heard my father use an expletive – a gaali – as they’d say in Benaras. The story stuck with me initially because of the unvarying way he’d narrate it, and also the way he’d point out his own outrage at being called names.

Later as an entrepreneur, when I was borrowing money (and yet again borrowing some more) and seemed to have my hand out perennially either to Angels or prospective VCs, this story really hit home.

Very early in his career, my father joined the firm that he’d spend the next 37 years at. Founded as a trading company, the firm was as cash strapped as only a growing firm could be. As my father put it in the early days of their business, they “boldly and often baldly borrowed money.” Not infrequently these were at usurious rates from local moneylenders. As the young company’s accountant, my dad usually was the pointed end of this borrowing thrust. The borrowing was done in the name of the proprietor (my dad’s boss) but almost always singly handled by my dad.

One day they found that there were yet again in need of cash and approached a money lender from whom they had borrowed before. In fact, they were yet to pay off their previous loan. Even as they were warming up to their pitch for borrowing more money, the Shylock began abusing my dad’s boss – calling his mother names. My dad was livid and about to jump on the Shylock’s throat, when he felt a warning tug on his hand – his boss was practically pinching my dad’s palm off. My dad got the message and kept his counsel. Soon enough, after lumping the name-calling, they had pried some money out of the curmudgeon and headed back to their office.

Soon as they were out of earshot, his boss asked him,

Did you borrow money from him?

“Yes,” my dad replied dutifully

Well did you return his money?

“No of course not!”

Then what the hell were you getting all worked up for when he abused me?

Many a times I have felt quite sanctimonious, even outraged, at the behavior of prospective customers, partners and of course VCs. Whilst this was truer when I could be called young and hot-blooded, it’s not something I have completely lost. So when that familiar feeling swells up in a meeting, I recall my father’s story and his advice to be humble!

Be Considerate – Lessons from my dad

06-26: Be SafeMy father always waited till we got to the railway station or the airport, before he’d have the TALK with me. I never figured out why he waited till one of us was getting ready to leave town. It somehow made it a whole lot easier for him to have this conversation. The gist of many of these eve-of-departure conversations, when I was in college and then graduate school, was, “Be considerate.”

I appreciate my father all the more, given the number of different ways he has tried to get me to understand this. “Don’t be self absorbed – think of others; show that you are thinking of others. It’s not enough to say I love you and not demonstrate that love in any other way. Be it with flowers, chocolate or that diamond necklace (okay, he didn’t say that last one, but I don’t think my wife would have minded, if he had).

My own reaction to my father’s advice ranged from non-comprehension (“What are you talking about Dad?”) to mild irritation (“Why did you wait till I was leaving to have this talk”) to sometimes outright combativeness (“Did you not tell me money is not important?”). The day this lesson really hit home was when he commented “If you were a fool, it would be a lot easier for me to accept your behavior; unfortunately I know you are not a fool – which makes me all the more sad. Your being inconsiderate is then either a choice you are making or worse.”

As the father of two not-so-little girls, I know that it’s not easy for a father to say this. Of course knowing how I feel with my own kids at times, it’s a miracle my dad did not kill me or at the very least slap some sense into me.

I realize this as I work every day with very smart people and see not so smart behavior, especially when it comes to being considerate. It’s as if being successful or at least ambitious, means you can’t be considerate. Luckily for me, I am surrounding by people who are neither shy nor retiring. So they don’t hesitate to give feedback and keep me honest.

In my own case, on more than one occasion, I have had a senior colleague ask me, “Could you not have asked me to hand out the recognition awards? At the very least you could have asked me to be present, when you handed them out?” Having worked with my team for the better part of decade I realized (often all too late) that this was not about who did the handing out, as much as being inclusive and more importantly, not excluding even by omission.

This morning, as I set out for a short visit with my dad and a new week at work, I still hear him say, “Be considerate!”

It was only when I turned forty a few years back, that several new synapses fired for the first time in my brain. I realized that over the years, my father while narrating stories – often incidents or vignettes from work – had been imparting some serious wisdom to me. After 20 years of listening to these, sometimes grudgingly it finally dawned on me that much of what I’ve learnt and continue to practice as a professional stems from these stories of my dad. Starting this month, I hope to blog about some of them. Fred Wilson’s post yesterday about thoughts on this 20th wedding anniversary on building a long term relationship finally got this post off the ground.

 

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