The pursuit of excellence is a part of the Indian DNA. Every family produces glowing examples of high achievers among the Indian diaspora and this has been recognised as our strength as we form the formidable living bridge. This landscape that we are born into, is also one that puts a lot of performance pressure on us, individually.
One of my favourite poems is the one by Emily Dickinson:
“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonised and clear!"
As the eldest of three siblings, I was not allowed to fail, ever. Anything I did, I was expected to be the best in. Looking back, though the pressures were too much, I became extremely hard working and that has helped me survive some of the most turbulent phases of my life. I promised myself as a child I will not inflict this kind of performance pressure on my children and instead encourage them to find their own space and flourish.
I look around myself and some of the friends I grew up are now parents who have similar expectations of their children as did our parents – for their children to do really well, settle down and live comfortably. This meant, sending children to the best schools, providing for the best of facilities and making sure they are well nourished.
During my growing up days, the only aspirations I was allowed to have was to secure the top score, pursue engineering or medical sciences and become an engineer or a doctor. Anything else was viewed as lack of ambition. I remember one such family get together where children declared their future plans and I stood up to say, “I wish to do something meaningful.” Everyone looked at me in shock.
A few years later, in my university at the intro session with our Professor, everyone was asked to share their future plans and ambition. When it was my turn, I found the same words roll out of my tongue, “I wish to do something meaningful.”
Fast forward a few years to today, when asked what my future plan is, the same words would come out: “I wish to do something meaningful and leave behind a legacy.” Today, I am often met with an applause, admiration and people walking up to me and telling me how inspired they feel!
What changed? In my aspiration, nothing really. Though people’s perception of excellence ultimately caught up when they saw almost 35 years later, what I meant when I first uttered these words.
Though I will tell you what helped me continue to harbour my dream. I failed. Many times at that. At every step, I failed or fell one short. If I didn’t fail, the opportunity that presented itself fell short. I wanted to do more than just a day job. I wanted to work, to learn and to do more.
Forget me, I am a nobody. Let’s talk about someone you know. Heard of J.K. Rowling? Did you know she was an unemployed and depressed single mother who was a complete failure, or so the world thought. I read somewhere that she spent countless days at coffee shops, idling away and scribbling her idea for a novel about wizards.
In 2008, at a Harvard University talk, she said: “Failure meant a stripping away of the essential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and I began to direct all my energies to finishing the only work that mattered to me.
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive... and so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Many of you may have already ordered your Apple 12 version, but did you know Steve Jobs faced failure too? Apparently, in 1985, Apple discontinued its poorly selling Lisa computer as Macintosh sales plummeted. Jobs was thrown out of his own company that he started in his garage! Embarrassment aside, you can imagine the devastating blow for him. He was fired by the CEO of Apple, John Sculley, who he had himself hired.
Those years that Steve Jobs was not at Apple, the Macintosh sales remained poor as Microsoft became everybody’s favourite personal computer choice. In an interview, Jobs said: “Apple deserved it. After I left, it didn’t invent anything new. The Mac hardly improved. It was a sitting duck for Microsoft.”
Over a decade later, Jobs came back to Apple to pick up the pieces and this was a time when the company was a nail-scratch away from bankruptcy. Jobs decided the focus of the company had to be innovation and excellence. Come 2012, having invented the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, the company became uniquely successful, almost unbeatable!
There are plenty of examples of failures and one of my favourite men from History, Abraham Lincoln (), oh yes, he faced failure too, several at that.
A man from very humble circumstances, Ab Lincoln lost eight elections, failed in two businesses and suffered a nervous breakdown that made him seriously ill and bedridden for half a year. Of course, had he given up, he wouldn’t be known to us as one of the greatest American Presidents, would he?
In 2018, I was requested to send a message for a plaque that was to be installed in the memory of my late daughter at this vibrant primary school in Madurantakam, just outside of Chennai. I decided to tell the children what I told Nainika: “Excellence is in being a better you every day. Your life is a gift. Make the most of it, every day.”
So this and New Year, as you spend quiet time in reflection indoors with family, pursue excellence and let it not be limited by anything; not even your own hesitation.
Happy Diwali and Nootan Varsh Abhinandan!
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for ‘iGlobal’, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.