Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Journey by APJ Abdul Kalam

MY JOURNEY - Transforming Dreams into Action by APJ Abdul Kalam (2013), Rupa, p 147

It is always a pleasure reading the writings of APJ. These are so inspiring, emotional and straight-from-the-heart type that everybody who reads him can follow and connect oneself with the contents.  

This book is an autobiography of this great man called APJ Abdul Kalam, though it does not follow a traditional structure of an autobiography. The book is designed very nicely and makes a easy and engrossing read, just like any story book. As a believer in journey more than the destination I enjoyed going through it and almost finished it in two long sittings. Though some of the stories I had read through other sources, however it was first time to read about his family through his own words. The life lessons from his journey are touching, relevant and practical in nature. His views on education, on developed India, on meeting deadlines, on dedication, on loyalty, on mutual respect are really worth reading and learning. 

The journey that I followed through this book could be summarised in a small para like this. APJ was born in Rameswaram (Tamilnadu) in 1931. His father (Jainulabdeen) was a boat maker and also ran ferries to earn living. He was a pious soul and taught him through religious teachings. His was a joint family. His cousin, Ahmed Jalaluddin was his first mentor who had lot of trust and faith in APJ and always motivated him to pursue good education. While APJ was 8 years old, he helped Samsuddin (one of his cousins) in selling newspapers and he continued a hectic routine of getting up at 4 am, going for tuition and then to the Railway station for fetching newspapers and then to distribute them in the locality, then an hour of religious teaching and then for school. After school the evening was meant to collect the dues from the households for newspaper and then study. This hectic schedule taught him the value of hard work and the learning from his father's morning walks and newspaper distribution, developed in him a habit of getting up early in the morning which he continues still now. He did his engineering in Aeronautics from Madras Institute of Technology, Madras. Fascinated by the life of birds and the teaching demonstrations by his teachers on the bank of the sea, he developed an interest in flying and wanted to become a pilot but was not selected. However he was selected as the senior scientific officer in the Directorate of Technical Development and Production (Air) under the Ministry of Defence. Later he became a known space scientist and worked with the top scientists of India.  Popularly known as Missile man, APJ rose to the highest position in the country as President of India.  And rest is history.

The book is divided in 12 small chapters, each focusing on his relationship with individuals and few objects like boat making. The lessons learnt from his mentors like cousin Jalaluddin and Mr Vikram Sarabhai and from his father, mother, brother and sister are narrated through an interesting style of story telling.  A chapter is also devoted to the books which shaped his thinking and influenced him most.

The book is full of anecdotes and interfaces of APJ with people who influenced his whole life and as he says, he carries the learning from them still fondly. Once he asked his father, 'why do people come to him (his father) when they have problem and what really he does', the reply of his father always stayed with him which was:
'Whenever human beings find themselves alone, as a natural reaction, they start looking for company. Whenever they are in trouble, they look for someone to help them...Every recurrent anguish, longing and desire finds it own special helper. For the people who come to me in distress, I am but a go-between in their effort to ward off demonic forces with prayers and offerings....One must understand the difference between a fear-ridden vision of destiny and the vision that enables us to seek the enemy of fulfillment within ourselves...When troubles come, try to understand the relevance of your sufferings. Adversity always presents opportunities for introspection' (p 6-7)
For APJ the role of teacher is most important for building a great nation as he says - 'true quality (of education) does not come from a great building or great facilities or great advertisements. It happens when education is imparted with love by great teachers.' (p 36)  The lesson learnt from his teacher, Prof Srinivasan at MIT Madras is still vivid in his memory as he mentioned, what his professor told him when he did not appreciate the model made by APJ - 'I knew I was putting you under immense pressure when I rejected your work the other day. I set an impossible deadline - yet you have met it with work that I can only call outstanding. As your teacher, I had to push you to your limits so that you could recognize your own true potential.' (p 74) The message of meeting the deadlines and never-give-up spirit carried APJ all through in his thinking, actions and decision making at different levels in different institutions. When he was not selected by the Indian Air Force, he was distressed and he visited Swami Sivananda at Haridwar on his way back from Dehradun, who told him -  
'Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an air force pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence...Surrender yourself to the wish of God.' (p 78)
The journey of a village boy from a remote place called Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to the Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi is narrated so modestly and honestly by the person himself that one can not afford to miss reading it if one is interested in knowing and learning the rich heritage of human values of India. Who says hope is fading off in India, you read this small journey, I bet you would believe that it is possible and there are people alive in who still make a difference not just through their words but through their deeds and actions for transforming this great nation into a developed nation as visualised in the last chapter of the book - miles to go.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Outliers - the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell

OUTLIERS - the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell (2008), Penguin Books, p 309.

The question as to what is that which makes people successful keeps coming to our mind as we keep reading about great people and come across their journey. I have been trying to find out that formula which can help me understand the basics for becoming a successful person. Shakespearean belief that Some are born Great, Some achieve Greatness and on some Greatness is thrust upon caught my attention while I started relating Greatness with Success and later realized that there is a difference in being Successful and in being Great. While reading about different research works and books I came across this book titled OUTLIERS by one of my favorite authors Malcolm Gladwell (MG) and having gone through 'Blink' and 'The Tipping Point', I thought that my familiarity with the writing style of MG might solve the puzzle that I have been facing all this while.

MG successfully traces the background of successful individuals and develops a story around it focusing on finding out the antecedents. Biological and biographical characteristics of individuals determine a kind of behavior individuals follow. Key success factors of individuals are determined by the culture, background, growing up, geography (location), prevailing political-social-economical-technological conditions, etc. This book starts a story interwoven with various researches by educationists, psychologists and sociologists to defend so succinctly the argument and convinces the reader chapter after chapter what the author wants to convey, the constituents of being successful. The reasoning given in the book is at times never ever thought of but he is able to win through his in depth study and linking the condition with the outcome.

The cause of maintaining better cardiological standards is explained through the research done by Bruhn and Wolf which is able to keep the reader engrossed and curious to further learn about other stories. Community living through providing a strong support system with ‘a thinking beyond the individual’ was found to be the main reason unlike their biological and geographical background. MG writes - I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.

The book is divided in two parts - Opportunity and Legacy. The author seems to be convinced that there are these two great differentiators which make people successful or otherwise. Coincidental yet providing a defense for being successful hockey player as they were born in a given month makes it really interesting and the as the argument seems making sense, one realizes that it is just because in order to have admission into Hockey Academy one has to be of certain age and many a times it is manipulated.  The point is the available opportunity to these players who join the academy and who are not able to join, makes all the difference, though at the end of the day it is genuine performance which matters. The opportunity which was capitalized by Bill Gates or the people of his tribe makes the case of being successful through the presence of opportunity more than the talent. It really does make sense and we have seen it all around us. Many talented individuals could not achieve greater heights in their career just because they did not get the opportunity or they just could not have that talent which could convert the opportunity into targeted performance. In case of technological transformation (especially in connection with computers), people who were born in 50s could avail the opportunity in 70s. It was just in time for them.

Growing up with a statement – practice makes the man perfect, I realize that outliers also possess patience and get an opportunity for seriously practicing for their passion, their focus, their target and resultantly achieve it. As portrayed by MG in this book through the example of The 10,000-Hour Rule, and illustrated through the success of Beatles, Bill Gates, Bill Joy and others in the same club.     

A lot depends on the growing up of individuals and what they learn from their growing up. The prevalent conditions and situation and the art of successfully dealing with it in one’s advantage is what becomes a contributing factor for having an attitude to learn and work hard (or otherwise).  The culture of honor determines one’s cognitive faculties through an attitude, perception, and personality. Depending on whether one has grown as farmer or herdsman, in the bordering town or mainstream city, one carries oneself and forms a certain kind of behaviour. This is Legacy and MG believes that it plays an important role in distinguishing successful individuals from not-so-successful ones. Extrinsic factors apart from biological characteristics of an individual determine the scale of success (or otherwise) for them.

The case of crash of Korean Air plane is explained, reasoned and corroborated in such an excellent way which displays MG’s brilliance in putting the threads together and weaving an excellent story with it, leaving behind so much of bulleted learning. For the students of behaviour and management it makes an important read. The conditions in which one grows up drives him/her to develop a certain kind of behaviour which results in an attitude to perform one’s best and to be assertive about one’s position which is part of a legacy an individual carries forward with. Number of days and hours of effective schooling in a year and day in eastern world as compared to western world is relatively more.  The school year in the US is, on average, 180 days long, in South Korea it is 220 days, and in Japan it is 243 days long. This develops an attitude of hardworking in a child from the very beginning which is driven by the fact that one needs to put more efforts. The example of rising before dawn 360 days a year makes sense for the case of having more effective working time. Knowledge Is Power Program in New York City is the result of this learning in order to get prepared to compete with their eastern counterparts.

The dedication of the book to Daisy, the grandmother of MG is very apt and the reason has been explained by him towards the end of the book. This in fact makes Daisy as well as MG and MG’s mother an Outlier. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who believes in the pursuit towards excellence and in the quest of knowing the rationale.