Monday, December 2, 2013

Life Lessons from the Ping-Pong Table!

Like several of my colleagues at work, I too look forward to the lunch hour every day. Not just for the appetizing canteen food, or the lunch room conversations – but for the table-tennis game that follows after lunch.

It is a pastime that seems to be gaining in popularity, and with younger folks joining the organization, the standards seem to be going up too. It’s usually a series of matches involving doubles teams, and apart from being a healthy stress-buster it is also a great leveler (where else would you find the rookie accounts officer hammering the CFO!)

As I sat back and thought of the fun-and-games, I couldn’t help thinking that the daily ping-pong session also offers us some interesting life lessons. Here are just a few:

1.      Not too high, not too low. It’s a simple game after all. Hit the ball – not so low that it doesn’t clear the net - and not so high that it does not land on the table. Most things in business – and in life - are like that. It’s about finding balance. In dealing with people, you can’t be so hard that no one wants to work with you – and you can’t be so soft that no one takes you seriously. You can’t invest so much that the returns never seem enough, nor should you invest so little that sustaining the business becomes unviable. And remember, you have to make that adjustment. The net won’t get any lower – nor will the table become any longer. You need to adjust.

2.      Two better players don’t always make a stronger team. We often think great teams are just about having highly talented individual players. As we see every afternoon, the two stronger individual players don’t always end up winning as a team. Teamwork is about learning to get the best out of your team-mate, covering for the other’s weaknesses – and helping him (or her) to play to his full potential. Good lesson to remember – on the table-tennis table and off it too.

3.      Small things matter. We have a table that cost quite a bit and some very nice, expensive racquets too. And yet, there are days when we don’t get to play – because we have run out of table-tennis balls! A ball only cost some 15 rupees or so – but without it – life comes to a standstill. And we seem to only worry about them when they are not there. Good question to ask yourself: what are the ping-pong balls in your life? Who are those almost forgotten, seemingly insignificant folks – without whom your life wouldn’t be the same?

4.      Blame it on the racquet! It happens all the time. Someone hits a bad shot, or loses a few points – and then what does he do? He looks disgustedly at his racquet and reaches out for a change of racquets. The message seems to be clear: The problem is not with me, it’s that damn racquet! When things go wrong we always look for someone or something to blame it on. A bad workman – even in sport – still blames his tools. Maybe a good idea to just take a deep breath, and focus on your game – and not worry about the racquet. Most times, the racquet is only as good as the person holding it!

5.      It’s just a sport – but everyone wants to win! The competitiveness on the table is to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter that not every player is an expert and there are no big prizes to be won, everybody is playing to win. It’s fun alright, but there is an underlying desire to do well, to get that next point, to win. And that’s a good attitude to have in life. Have fun. But ensure you are playing to win. Focus on the next point – don’t worry about the last one. Remember, no matter how strong the opposition maybe, you can win the next point. And the next. You can win. That’s what sport is all about. Heck, isn’t that what life is all about?


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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Who is Your Hero?

Here’s a question for you. Who is your hero?

There is tremendous value in having a hero. Heroes can inspire us to dream big, and do the impossible. Heroes can lift us in moments of depression and give us hope. And heroes blaze a trail which tells us that if we did similar things, we could achieve our dreams too. Our heroes can change over time – and that’s probably an indication of our own changing situations in life. And yes, don’t expect your heroes to be perfect in all respects. You will be disappointed and might get put off heroes forever – which would be a pity!

A question I often get asked is who my hero was. I have had several heroes in my life. And I thought it might be useful to share some of those stories. So here goes…

One of my earliest heroes in life was my father. Now that’s probably true for many of us! As a little kid, I was hugely inspired by the things he did. A self-made man – he left home in a village in Kerala to come to Mumbai to make a living, went on to study engineering, and forged a successful career. He even mastered the Hindi language enough to be able to teach it. Incredible! And I got my first lessons in writing and speaking from him. I also got my first lessons in people management – as a six year old kid. Here are two simple lessons I haven’t forgotten: One, always call the driver by his name. So it was always Nathu-bhaiyya – not ‘driver’! And lesson two: Carry your own school bag – don’t have someone else to do it for you!

As a cricket-crazy kid in school, I got a new hero when Sunil Gavaskar burst on the scene. He was short, opened the innings, and took on the fastest bowlers in the world without a helmet. He was also articulate, and wrote a fabulous book! In an interview at that time, Gavaskar said how he used his height (or lack of it) to his advantage – it helped him avoid the bouncers! And he talked of how playing cricket in the balcony of his little Mumbai home taught him to hit the ball straight – in the ‘V’. For me they were huge lessons: make the most of what you have. And don’t complain about what you may have missed out on!

And then came the angry young man. Amitabh Bachchan was a hero not just because he managed to beat up all the bad guys even while ensuring he was the son every mom wished she had! For me, the Amitabh story was all about having the courage to give up a steady job to chase your dreams, about being rejected, seeing repeated failure (and even being turned down by All India Radio because they felt he didn’t have a great voice!) And through it all, fighting, persevering, and never, never giving up.

A huge influence at work was one of my early bosses – Suman Sinha! He taught me that a leader at work was like an alchemist. Just as an alchemist turns metal to gold, a true leader turns men and women into managers. And he taught me the importance of values, of integrity, and the habit of doing the right thing – at all times.

There have been several other heroes too. Rahul Dravid, the ultimate team man. And Steve Jobs. And of course, my driver Karunan, who shared pearls of wisdom from his own life (sample this: Early in your career, what you learn is more important than what you earn. And don’t worry about which car you are driving. Focus on being a good driver!). Karunan is also a good reminder that heroes are everywhere. They don’t have to be famous people! And the important bit is not who the hero is, but about what you learn from him and how he inspires you.

So that’s it about me. But tell me, who is your hero? I am keen to hear! And in case you don’t have a hero, find one. Today!