Lessons from the rain forest

Lessons from the rain forest

 Guyana was also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts. All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.

I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself. And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina) was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and then give it away.

Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back, everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would sit and talk about life.

The big topic of conversation at the time was the posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the matter was resolved peacefully.

Another topic was the government of President Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources, so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so rapidly.

The bush in South America is different from its counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.

An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact, ‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and character and is the stuff of memories.’

Remember when you read these pages that if I have written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they will live on until they are remembered.

River Berbice, Guyana, 1980

Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope, fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.

It was a matter of honor for us that we would only eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.

Almost every other Friday evening, we would start from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible. So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.

Our routine was always the same. We would draw the boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.

When dinner was done, we would climb into our hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will be safe.

Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order so it is better to stay off their menu.

Early next morning, we would start out at first light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.

The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight. The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of the river, cross country across the rain forest.

Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep enough to float it.

The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.

Even if you are not allergic, the sting means several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.

As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform. Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town. They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way up.

It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t even know that they had been there.

One weekend we decided to go as far as we could and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand. No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an occupation to be thought of easily.

I got the fire going while Peter hung up our hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be. Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from India.

He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’

I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’

He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’

I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than this.

Success is the biggest danger

Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:

  • That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
  • That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
  • That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.

This seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power.

That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.

This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.

What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth.  That growth is not looking with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.

So, what is the alternative?                                          

In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.

Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.

The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.

It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.

A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.

Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. And if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces stress. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.

The strange thing in life is that organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is Friday. This is a small party at the end of the work day on Friday where all employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian companies picked up on this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it as a perk in their recruitment spiels.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this TGIF custom.

I asked him, “Do you really want people to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I said to him, “To me, if someone who works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal. It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment where people would actually love to go to work.”

“You are a real spoilsport,” said my friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”

Take another case. You have a sales person who is magical. She or he is an inspired sales person. They can sell the Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.

You achieved two things: Firstly you were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas.

Consider the alternative. Passionate people who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it? And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work. The need is essential.

Just to close the point I am making here, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for.

It is essential for one to take stock from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.

Which brings me to the next question: what is a good goal?

A good goal in my view has two essential ingredients:

  1. It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
  2. It is big enough to scare you.

A goal that is not scary will not generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big, scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood. You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored, inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know, the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the tigers that will make you run.

It’s true that tigers are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.

 

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

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Life Lessons from Tea

I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.

The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.

However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.

Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.

Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.

Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.

Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.

I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.

1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.

Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:

  • That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
  • That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
  • That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.

This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.

What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth.  That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.

So, what is the alternative?                                          

In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.

Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.

The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.

It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.

A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.

Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.

Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.

Berty Suares, my dearest friend

Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers.  While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.

The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.

Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………

 

Structure and Focus

Structure and Focus

Balance passion and system – Passion without system burns out.
System without passion creates bureaucracy. 
But together they can change the world

All the passion in the world will get you nowhere if you don’t create a step by step strategy to achieve your goals and then focus on each step, one by one. Work smart. Not everything is equally important. Sometimes what we don’t like to do is more important than what we like to do. For example, rigorous number crunching in a business plan is more important than inspirational prose regarding the aims and objectives of the project. But most creative people hate numbers. So, hate them, but do them. You don’t have to like them. But you must do them if you want to achieve what you like. So also in a marriage. There will be things that you don’t like about your spouse, but you must accept them because the good outweighs the bad. Someone asked Arthur Hailey (I think it was him) the secret of writing. He answered, ‘Writing.’ I say the same when they ask me, ‘How did you write so many books?’ I say, ‘By writing.’ Structure is the key to success no matter how tired in you may feel. So, channel the passion into the structure of a time-bound roadmap and then focus on following it faithfully.

Structure is the proof that you have faith in your goal. The farmer digs irrigation channels (structure) before the coming of the monsoon rain so that the water will be led to the right place – to the roots of his plants. His digging is proof that he believes that the rain will come and that he is serious about success, because without the irrigation channels the rain will simply run off the land and do him no good. In that case his crop would have failed not because it did not rain but because he did not dig the irrigation channels.
I decided in 1983 that I wanted to be a specialist in Leadership Development. I spent the next eleven years studying leadership and practicing how to teach. I did not take a single day’s vacation from 1983 to 1994. I negotiated with my employer to give me fifteen days of unpaid leave in addition to my 35 days of annual vacation. These fifty days I would spend going from place to place, traveling third class by train (wooden plank for a seat), learning how to teach, from the different friends who agreed to allow me into their classes. In the class, I would quietly sit in a corner and take notes and then discuss with the trainer what he/she did and why. Sometimes they would allow me to teach a module and would critique what I did. I asked them to let me accompany them to client meetings so that I could observe and learn to negotiate. I learnt what to do and what not to do. I did not simply copy my mentors. I asked myself, ‘How can I do this better than they are doing?’ And guess what? Sometimes I managed to do it better. For all this work, I made less than Rs. 2000 collectively as an income over eleven years. But I acquired an education that has served me ever since.
I also decided that I needed a formal education in business management with a degree, but I had neither the money nor the time for it, as I was married and had to support myself and my wife. So, I did an Executive MBA at the IIM-A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) which gave me a saleable qualification at a lower price and time in the premier business school in India. I learnt that in some things the name is very important because most people can’t get past a name to let you show them what you can do. So, having a name that opens doors is very useful. This applies to schools, employers, clients, addresses, and teachers. However even for that, I was so poor that I had to sell my car and borrow the rest of the money for the fees from a friend. My employer agreed to loan me 50% of the fee at 8.3% interest and to give me leave without pay for the duration of the course, provided I signed a three-year bond to return to them and work. I agreed and kept my word even though I wondered at the justice of this agreement. But as soon as my bonded period was over, I exercised my freedom and left. Two years later, I set up my practice as an independent consultant. While I was with them, I applied everything I learnt; not only to benefit them but also to get enough practice. I kept records of what I did and in 2008 it became a book.
Create a structure and focus on following that structure, step by step. Don’t get distracted along the way. Don’t give in to what you like but do what must be done whether you like it or not because you realize the value of it in the long run. Keep your word even if you don’t like doing it because keeping your word is about you, not about them. Focus on what you will gain and everything else will become easy. That is the ticket. The key is to take pleasure in the journey. For the journey is the destination.

An Entrepreneur’s Diary – Interview

http://amzn.to/2kctrRV

1 — Founding story: why this venture, why that particular time, what motivated to make the leap? What were the entrepreneur’s greatest fears and desires?

Need for excitement, challenge, freedom — all these were reasons. I had planned to start something on my own in 1984 when I first attended a self-development workshop which gave me a taste for training and I realized that I have a natural talent for teaching and loved doing it. But it took almost 10 years of planning and preparation before I actually launched my company. The final trigger was when I reached a plateau in my career, the downside of fast growth, and had to make a choice between changing my job or changing my career. I chose the latter and never regretted it. Strangely my greatest fear should have been starving to death but I never did experience it. My logic was that I planned to succeed, so I was not going to think about what to do if I failed. That has always been my logic and it works. Not having contingency plans seems like gambling, but in my experience, contingency plans take the edge off entrepreneurship. Your fears then drive you and you start seeking safety more and more and that is suicidal for the entrepreneurial activity. It is better not to think of the possibility of failure at all. Plan well. Work like hell. Be highly adaptable. Keep eyes and ears open. Listen to feedback and take risks. The greatest complement I ever received in my eyes was when Pradeep Singh, Promoter and MD of Aditi/Talisma said to me, ‘You are a master at brinkmanship.’ I think it is the ability to walk on the edge and not fall off, which is critical to success.

My greatest desire then and now (26 years later — counting from 1984) is to help people. I know what I can do. I see the results and it gives me a big thrill when someone comes up to me at an airport or somewhere in some country and says, ‘Mr. Baig, you changed my life. I remember listening to you in such-and-such course in such-and-such country and I did what you recommended and it worked.’ This has happened to me many times and nothing can beat the thrill of that. I enjoy my work. I am passionate about developing leadership. I enjoy seeing people empowered. I get the greatest satisfaction from knowing that I had something to do with that. I believe that it is absolutely essential to love your work. To be passionate about it. Even if all you do is to make widgets, you must be the most passionate widget maker in the world who lives, walks, talks and dreams about widgets. That is the secret.

2 — What were the most surprising things and most important lessons learned about founding and running a company? What were the greatest difficulties?

Building credibility was the biggest challenge. I was from a hard-core operations background, attempting to enter the area of professors, HR experts and the like. My logic was simple — I do the stuff they talk about. And guess what? I know how it feels to actually make it work, I know the difficulties that you Mr. Practitioner will face and I know how to fix it if it breaks. I didn’t just design strategies to deal with unions; I faced unions on the shop floor. I didn’t just design appraisal systems, I appraised and was appraised. I didn’t talk about team building principles; I built highly diverse teams which created benchmarks in productivity, motivation and working across boundaries. I didn’t teach risk management, I put my money where my dreams were and then stayed up in the night living with the empty feeling in the pit of my belly, waiting to see if my risk was going to pan out or not. And today I am still here and doing well. Risk to me is not a theoretical matter that I talk to others about while taking my own salary home. Risk is something that I live with, enjoy taking, have lost money on and have highly successful rules to deal with which I have invented, tested and practiced with great results. That approach worked and still works because I am from their world — the world of the practitioner who has to take the knowledge from the book and the lecture and actually use it in the field.

My big learning was not to do what is not my expert area. So, I have an operation where everything that does not need my personal intervention is outsourced. Takes a huge load off my back and balance sheet. I don’t have to supervise staff, don’t have overheads and simply pay bills, once a year and everything is in order. Another big learning was about the importance of having an abundance mentality and freely sharing resources, learning from and helping people; even people who others would see as competition. It is a matter of great satisfaction for me that several of my competitors have recommended me to their clients.

Can’t say that I had to face any great difficulties even though in the initial year there were months where until the last couple of days we didn’t know if we would have money to pay the rent for our home. But then I tended (and still do) to seek challenges. A difficulty doesn’t look the same if you went looking for it and found it. Then it is exciting, keeps you awake in the night inventing ways to solve it and gives you a big thrill when you do solve it; which makes you ready for the next one.

3 — What were the key reasons why the venture succeeded or failed?

Four key reasons why this venture succeeded:

1. Human relations: I believe in building relationships and always ensure that I follow the advice that my first boss Nick Adams gave me — Be good to people when you don’t need them. So, I have clients today who are more friends than clients and are my best ambassadors. In 20 years I have not had to make a single cold call. All my new clients are client referrals. That is worth money in the bank, believe me. I am consciously good to everyone I meet from the driver of the car which picks me up from the airport, to the man who deals with the audio-visual stuff in one of my programs, to the go-for young people, to the VPs who come to inaugurate my session. I have always maintained that anyone in the room is my client and their designations have nothing to do with how I treat them. They are all equally important to me.

2. Quality: I have always held myself to the principle that we will always deliver quality whether they want it or not. Because quality is our signature. Not theirs. So, we will always deliver quality and always deliver more than they expect. And we will remember that quality is reflected in the shine on your shoes, the crease of your clothes, the way you open the door for someone, whether you stand up to greet someone who enters the room, whether you ask if the driver or helper has eaten and if he hasn’t whether you invite him to eat at your table. All these are quality indicators with great impact. Far more than you would imagine and interestingly you won’t find them in any book or on any B-school menu of ‘Secrets of Success.’

3. Enjoy: I believe I succeeded because I enjoy my work. I know I have said this before but it is the key to success. You can never do well, something that you don’t enjoy. So, do only what you enjoy. And you will naturally do it better than anyone else. And what’s more you don’t get tired, stressed or bored. You love every minute of it, it energizes you and everyone else around you. And when it comes to doing more than what clients expect, it is easy to do because it only means to do more of what you enjoy.

4. Investing in myself: Every year I spend considerable sums of money and time, training myself. I do my own performance appraisal focused on my learning and contribution — not on my earning. In 2013, I had my 360-degree Appraisal done by Potentia, a company that specializes in this. I am most thankful for the result. I write at least one book per year. I write an article a week and in the last week alone, I had 11, 500 visitors to my website which has free articles and lectures for anyone who is interested. Enthusiasm is not a substitute for competence. Knowledge changes from time to time and unless you are focused on learning, redundancy is your biggest threat.

Investment in yourself is the cutting edge. It is what takes you to the top and keeps you there. The biggest secret of expertise is to continuously improve yourself and to do your work 24×7. I believe seriously that entertainment is for the mentally weak who are involved in daily activity which they don’t enjoy and so it creates stress. They need to get away from their ‘lives’ to live a fantasy for a few hours or a few days before they inevitably have to return to the drag. For people who live a life of purpose and passion, their work is the best entertainment. I thoroughly enjoy teaching and training and I would rather not be playing golf or fishing.

4 — What were the most important personal lessons that an entrepreneur needs to learn?

1. Learn to live with erratic cash flows. That is the downside of not having a salary. Good financial planning is the key; combined with financial discipline.

2. Learn to live with disappointment. You are not the most important thing in your client’s life so they will cancel assignments without notice. Smile and bear it because to cry and bear it is worse.

3. Learn to use spare time effectively — which means, make discipline a way of life.

4. Learn to enjoy uncertainty — you will have a lot of it.

5. Money has no meaning. Money is not the reason to work. Money is a natural consequence of excellent service. Honor, compassion, contribution, concern for quality and an abundance mentality are all more important than money. And guess what? If you do all this, money will come on its own. Only, you don’t do it because of the money.

5 — What would be your advice to someone starting their own business?

1. The world is round — what goes around, comes around.

2. Friends may come and go, but enemies stay with you — so be careful not to make enemies.

3. Build bridges because you will need them when you least expect.

4. Take advantage of opportunities — and remember they don’t come with a label round their necks.

5. Take risk — to wake up every morning is a risk. Without risk there is no growth and that is an absolute law.

6. Don’t look to see what you can do. Do what you can do best. Do what you are most passionate about. Because you will be doing it for a long time and there is nothing intelligent about doing something that you don’t enjoy even if you make money in the process.

7. If something is not working for you, examine your own values, ethics, morals and beliefs. All of what I said above is less about acting and more about being. Acting can’t be sustained. You don’t ask about someone’s welfare or share with someone or do more for a client because you have your eye on some future profit. You do it because that is who you are. Your values drive you and so look at your values and if necessary change them.

8. And last but by no means the least — be grateful. And show it. It is true that we owe our success to our efforts, but it is good to remember that many of those were made standing on someone else’s shoulders. If people had not helped us at critical moments, we would not have achieved what we did. Remember them and what they did because even if you forget they won’t.

I remember all those who helped me no matter how long ago that was. I ensure that I keep in touch with them and let them know that I have not forgotten them. I never will.