Continuing my adventure, I approached one of the most respected individuals and a visionary leader to share the lessons and wisdom he accumulated in his long and successful career.
It will be an injustice to the words he wrote if I describe it, so let’s read the anecdote of his professional learnings in his own words.
As I see it…My Journey through the corporate world
Today, a young colleague approached me, perhaps out of kind respect for the years of experience behind me, to share the precious lessons I might have learnt and the wisdom I might have accumulated during my long career. How I wish I had something of value to oblige the young person with and meet her expectations of some precious contribution! However, I decided to seize this opportunity to share some basic thoughts and ideas that lived, changed, and grew with me as I tried to learn from reading & observing masters at work.
The first of these fascinating realisations for me was to learn that Knowledge and Ignorance are NOT mutually exclusive and that one doesn’t necessarily replace the other. As a matter of fact, greater the knowledge, the greater the realisation of ignorance. That is why knowledge brings in humility. That’s why Socrates, arguably one of the most learned and wise men in the history of civilisation, said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”. In the context of a professional career, this attitude helps us to explore and uncover more and more. It keeps us humble, and it saves us from complacency.
Another harsh learning is the fact that in the corporate world, Ideas are overrated. We tend to get too impressed, sometimes even obsessed with ideas, often ignoring the defining role played by the execution. That’s why most corporate success stories are created by execution rather than the originality of the idea. Reminds me of a great quote I read somewhere that says, “Which one of us is original except in errors?” Of course, it doesn’t mean ideas are not important; it simply means execution is more important. Execution, however, is a different skill and takes a lot of discipline and hard work.
A very amusing myth amongst the higher rungs of corporate leadership is the notion that everything is simple, but people at junior levels make things more complex. What I have observed is that “when you overcome the complexity, you simplify but when you ignore the complexity, you trivialize”. It’s somewhat ironic and funny that one needs a great deal of ingenuity to overcome the complexity to see things as simple. Like Einstein famously said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible and no more!” Appreciating this aspect of corporate situations encourages us to think, to balance bias for action with a pause for thinking and simplifying.
On a slightly different but equally interesting note, consider this – “It’s a lot easier to point out errors of commission than it is to contribute the missing pieces by spotting the errors of omission”. For example, if I submit an essay for review, there may be many people who can find out spelling, grammatical or contextual errors, but it would probably take a person with great imagination or knowledge to identify the vital piece of information missing from the essay and to possibly contribute to correct that error of omission. If we truly internalise this, we can become more empathetic to our colleagues for finding faults with our work and perhaps be more useful to our friends by making a positive contribution when we can. Like Sherlock Holmes quotes to Dr. Watson in one of his stories, “From the drop of a water, one can imagine the existence of an ocean.”
Some myths are shamelessly propagated as native truths in corporate environments. Consider this advice from a senior colleague to a young aspiring professional – “Don’t reinvent the wheel”. Really? We would have Mercedes running on bullock cartwheels if everyone followed that advice. The advice probably shared in the spirit of saving time by leveraging the work done earlier by others should not curb individuals’ creativity and capacity to innovate. We often don’t spend enough time challenging ourselves to excel in the rush to show action and speed as proof of success.
It is interesting to observe how passionate people always seem to have a great time. Success is a natural outcome of a passionate engagement, but it’s not the primary source of fulfilment; passion is. As the popular quote from Lord Chesterfield says, “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well”. Professionals who can work with passion are guaranteed a lifetime of fulfilment and joy without depending on others to declare you successful.
Some cliches are so universal they reek of hypocrisy. Who hasn’t heard of corporate leaders exulting the virtues of teamwork? Well, everyone can preach that. A leader’s job is to enable teamwork, not just prescribe it. Often the unstated connotation in this advice undermines individual contribution, as though several people together can achieve anything, and that individual brilliance doesn’t matter. Well, nothing can be farther from the truth. Individual brilliance sets the standard; it motivates and encourages people. Reminds me of something I read somewhere “What is progress but the inventions of a few, imitated by waves upon waves of humanity?” Such thoughts encourage us to put the value of our individual contribution in perspective, makes it worth pursuing.
Finally, professionals with a sense of pride in their work tend to excel. They refuse to accept the ordinary and the commonplace. They refuse to let go even when others feel the task is done for; they seek a higher goal. They refuse just to imitate, for pride comes out of imagination, effort, and skill. Imagine Michelangelo, who stuck his famous sculpture “Moses” on the knees saying, “Now Speak!”. That’s pride, isn’t it?
As must be evident, most of the above commentary is borrowed wisdom. Ideas and opinions I read somewhere and over time tested in various contexts. Only knowing them doesn’t make me wise, just like understanding the chemical composition of water can’t quench one’s thirst. But I’ll say this, reading the great thoughts and admiring the great men and women of history enriches our own modest capacity somewhat. Again, quoting some great scholar, “There may or may not be a God, but there is something divine in the pursuit.”