You may well ask after reading the title of this article, ‘Then why aren’t there winners all around? After all everyone wants to win.’
I would answer, ‘I said that winning is a personal choice. Not a wish.’
And there lies the secret to winning and losing. The difference between wishing and choosing. One is passive. The other is active. One needs no effort. The other needs sweat and tears and maybe even a little blood.
One you look back upon in your twilight years and say to yourself in the midst of your tears, ‘If only!!’ The other you look back upon in your twilight years and say, ‘I am so happy that I shed my tears way back then.’
Now you are perhaps saying, ‘That is hard!’ Well, welcome to another great secret; life is hard. Or let me reword that, ‘A winner’s life is hard. And that is why it is a choice. Because while it is hard, it is also immensely satisfying, exciting, energizing, productive, beneficial for you and others, and leaves you with great memories.’ Hard is one word to describe all these things. Life is hard for losers too. Much harder really because it comes without any rewards. Choose wisely because it is your life.
Why aren’t there more winners? Because of another fact. People forget that we are free to choose but every choice has a price tag. It is like walking into any superstore. It is full of beautiful things. You are free to browse and look at whatever you like, maybe even try on or sample some things. But you can only take home what you pay for. It truly is as simple as that. Winners learn this early and then prepare themselves to pay for their choices and they walk away with their buys. I say early because depending on the choice, it may take a long time to prepare. Ask any world class tennis player or golfer at what age they held the first tennis racquet or golf club. You can extend that example to any sport or any profession. Those who excel, start early, and stay focused. You may say, ‘Well, I agree but I am not seven years old now.’ No, you are not. So, some choices are not open to you any longer. That is a big reason to choose early. However, what you can do at any age is to choose something else that is open to you and go for it. Just because you wasted your life until now doesn’t mean that you must continue to waste it. Sorry to be brutal. Life is brutal, and the sooner you realize that the sooner you will start winning.
Start early and stay focused. Do you know what you need to stay focused? Attention span. Focus is all about staying on one thing for a long time. How long is long enough? Depends on what you want to accomplish. There is no magic number but believe me, it is not measured in seconds or even minutes but in hours, days, and sometimes years. Focus is the difference between ordinary light and laser. One, at best illuminates. The other cuts through steel. You may say that you are happy with simply illuminating. All power to you. But if you are interested in leaving a legacy, in creating memories, in doing things that will continue to benefit others long after you are gone, then focus is critical. If you don’t believe me, tell me how many goldfish or monkeys do you know who left behind legacies? Likewise for people with the attention spans of these two lovely creatures. Do we need goldfish and monkeys? Yes, of course we do. But do you want to be a goldfish or a monkey? That is what you must decide. Some people wonder why I don’t do Shorts to reach the youth, who according to them have very short attention spans. Looks like they never saw a child or adolescent buried in his phone. My response is, ‘I teach winners. Not goldfish or monkeys.’ Having said that, I have several students who are dedicated enough to stay engaged, participate, and contribute to their own and my learning. That’s all I need. The problem is that today some teachers and scholars seem to have confused their roles with that of entertainers. It is not the job of the teacher or scholar to attract the masses. It is their job to provide the best possible learning experience for serious students. Teachers are like a crystal-clear river gushing out of a glacier with ice cold pure water. It is there for anyone to drink from, as much as they wish. But the one who is thirsty must go to the river. Not vice versa. The one who is thirsty will find the river. The one who is not, doesn’t need it. To take the river to him is to insult the river. Knowledge is for those who are thirsty for it. Not for the disinterested who have no time for it. The key to developing leaders is the same as the key to doing anything that stands out – you start with the best suited material. You can’t get a great harvest from trash seed. You can’t make a great Katana with scrap steel, no matter how skilled a sword-maker you may be. It is a mark of your skill as a sword-maker and a sign of your expertise that you start with selecting the best steel. You can’t make winners out of losers. Winners have huge attention spans. Losers watch Shorts on Tik-Tok.
We must all suffer from one of two things. The pain of discipline or the pain of regret. We must choose. Not choosing is also a choice.
I used the word ‘pain’ for a reason. All choices are painful. In some, the pain comes first. In others the pain comes later. The pain that comes first is voluntary. It is temporary. It enhances the reward. The pain that comes later is, in a manner of speaking, its own reward. And it lasts until your last day. That is the difference between the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Good winning choices are almost always tough and painful. But losing choices are far more painful though they seem easy to make. Once again, your call because it is your life.
I want to share with you some choices I made, so that you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. When I graduated high school, from the Hyderabad Public School, one of the best schools in India, I did not make a tough choice. I chose the easy route, to follow some friends. I lost one year in the process. I learnt my lesson very painfully and never made that mistake again.
In 1979, I left the comfort of home and family, friends and social circle in Hyderabad and went to Guyana on the other side of the world. I lived alone in Kwakwani, a little mining town carved out of the Amazonian rainforest, clinging to the bank of the Berbice River, where I was a total stranger, for five years. Nobody spoke my mother tongue, Urdu. I was the only Muslim. The only foreigner. The food, the language Guyanese or Creole, the culture West Indian, the people majority Africans, some of mixed Chinese, Amerindian, African, Indian stock, Indians, and Amerindians, were all totally alien to me. But I learnt the language until I could speak it like a native speaker and was often mistaken for one. I made friends who I love very much and who loved me and took me into their homes and lives. I am in touch with many today, 44 years later. I tried to do my work as the Assistant Administrative Manager (at 24 with subordinates as old as my father), learning to lead in a very hard, unionized, militant, labor environment. I learned about life and had a very successful career. I have written about all this in my book, ‘From India to the Indies’.
I was lonely sometimes. Very lonely missing my family and life back home in Hyderabad. Lonely enough sometimes to weep, as I would sit on the veranda of my house, looking out across the orange orchard, at the dark ominous wall of the forest that bordered our officer’s colony. The darkness in my heart was much more than the darkness I was looking out at. I could have packed my bags and left at any time. But I didn’t. I stayed. I am very stubborn. I don’t like to lose. To leave because I couldn’t take the pressure would be to lose. I was not going to do that. But I was also not going to remain miserable. So, I would go off fishing and hunting almost every weekend, with my friend and colleague, Peter Ramsingh. There is a unique thing about the pleasure of brotherhood; male companionship where you have each other’s back. There is no pretense, nothing to prove to the other, no secrets. You travel together, you know each other’s thoughts, you share your lives with complete trust that each will gladly give his life for the other if need be and consider it an honor. I had the singular privilege of having had three such friends. Peter was one. To go to Guyana was a tough choice. To stay was even tougher. After five years, I decided to return home, because thanks to Guyanese politics of the time, as a foreigner, I didn’t seem to have a great future in my career.
I entered the plantation industry in South India, Anamallais, in 1983 and in the same year decided to make a career as a leadership consultant. I wrote my goal as, ‘I will be a leadership consultant with a global practice and clients for whom I will be the natural and only choice.’ Writing this was easy. Achieving the first stage of it by launching my consulting practice took me 12 years of working every weekend, every vacation and spending every penny on learning consulting skills. Remember, at the time I started, I didn’t know that it would take me 12 years. Maybe that was a good thing, because I am not sure if I would have had the courage to take the first step. During this period, I earned an Executive MBA (MEP from IIMA) from the premier business school in India, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. This happened in the year I got married, one month after our wedding. My wife spent that time with her parents, and I didn’t see or speak to her until I completed my course. That was not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t have the money to travel or make an international telephone call. It took my life savings, plus a loan, plus the time as leave without pay, to pay the fees for the course. None of this was a surprise. My wife and I spoke about this and decided that I needed to do this if I wanted to be a consultant. In this case, the tough choice, and the cost of it was for both of us to bear. We did.
When I launched my consulting practice in Bangalore in 1994, we faced choices of a different kind. I was a total stranger in the training, consulting environment. I had no network, no linkages, no track record as a trainer or consultant. I had been a line manager and my experience was in bauxite mining, manufacturing, plantation management, and unionized labor relations. I had never been a training or HR manager. But I had chosen leadership consulting as my career. At that time, major multinational companies had come to India and recruitment was the name of the game. Many people told me to become a recruiter. I studied the market and found that recruiters were essential to everyone but were the least trusted of all service providers because of their tendency to pick a person from one company and place him in another at a higher salary. Since their earnings were a factor of that, it benefited them but employers who lost people to recruiters naturally didn’t trust them. I chose not to be a recruiter because as a leadership consultant, I needed to be trusted as a friend and confidant. I needed money very badly because we had just started a new life and I knew I was passing up easy money by not becoming a recruiter, but I was not after easy money. I was after establishing a clientele which trusted me. Indian businesses had and continue to have a very loose and cavalier attitude about respecting copyright and using proprietary material without permission is almost a norm. I refused to do this and paid the price in one instance of losing a very lucrative and critical contract in a company that likes to trumpet from the rooftops about their commitment to integrity. But in reality, they are not above trying to twist the arm of an honest person who considered copyright violation to be theft. They tried. They failed. I suffered materially but I slept peacefully at night. The result of these choices was that in two years, I built a practice with almost every major multinational company as a client but not even one of them ever requiring me to sign an NDA agreement. Nobody gave me a certificate of trust, but I didn’t need one. There is nothing more powerful than not being asked to sign an NDA.
Then one of my friends from GE, which was one of my first clients, told me, ‘If you seriously want to be a consultant, you must write a book.’ I did. Currently that count is forty. I had worked for one of India’s largest and most respected family businesses for ten years and was good friends with the promoter family including one of their first-generation founders. So, my first book was, ‘The Business of Family Business’. I dedicated it to the memory of the founder and chairman of the group, Mr. A.M.M. Arunachalam Chettiar. He was my mentor and the best teacher that I could have wished for in this field. I had started from being an employee and became an entrepreneur and so I wrote, ‘An Entrepreneur’s Dairy’. I had stayed out of recruiting as a business but had helped many clients to assess potential senior managers and wrote, ‘Hiring Winners’. I was and am a leadership consultant and wrote, ‘Leadership is a Personal Choice’. I am deeply interested in wildlife conservation and wrote, ‘The World we don’t see’. I worked for ten years in the plantation industry and so I wrote ‘In a Teacup’, and the ‘Handbook of Tea Plantation Management’. And the list continues. The lesson I want to share here is the importance of documenting life experiences, reflections on those experiences, conceptualizing of learnings, experiments with those learnings, and final lessons. Without recording and documenting, I would never have had the material to write anything. Documenting is a lifelong habit of mine which I strongly advocate for anyone who wants to share their experience and wisdom.
In addition to all of this, I held and continue to hold myself to the standard that to teach others, one must learn constantly. So, I make it a rule for myself to read, attend courses, and earn technical certifications regularly. All that takes money, time and making hard choices. As I write this, at the age of 67, I am about to go to a two-month immersion learning program in the Arabic language, which costs USD 14,000 and where I will have to live alone in a college hostel. Mercifully my wife is equally dedicated to her profession as an abstract artist and happy to stay alone to let me indulge my madness about learning new things.
Working very hard to earn a living, holding myself to standards that nobody demanded from me, writing and publishing, on average, two books a year for twenty years meant that our social life was very limited. That is where loving what you do is so important. If you love what you do, you don’t need entertainment. This is not the same as being a workaholic. This is the dedication that makes a music maestro practice for eight hours a day, every day, for the joy of it. Extend that example to any iconic name in any field and you have the same result. Limited social life and dedication to the profession. I love reading, writing, and teaching. My best reward is when someone meets me in an airport and says, ‘Mr. Baig, I don’t know if you remember me, but you changed my life.’ I say, ‘I hope that was for the better.’ ‘Yes, totally. I am what I am, because of you.’ I know that is a gross exaggeration. I didn’t change him. It was his own dedication to becoming a winner which happened, but it feels good to know that I made a positive difference to someone’s life. Who cares that I didn’t go to the club for the New Year’s party?
Winning is about dedication. It is about concentration. It is about focus. It is about making tough choices willingly. It is about stepping forward and saying, ‘Choose me not because I am cheap but because I can give you the best value.’ Winning is not an accident. Winning is not a mystery. You will win if you are serious about winning. Winning is inevitable but only if you do the right things.
So is losing. The choice is yours. Because…….