Your Excellency Sri Vajubhai Vala, Governor of Karnataka, Sri Doreswamy Naidu, the Chancellor of PES University, Prof Jawahar, the Pro Chancellor, Dr K N B Murthy, the Vice Chancellor of the University, faculty, staff, students, parents and others present here today:
At the outset, let me congratulate the proud graduates who are here today to this first convocation of the PES university to receive their degrees. I am happy to be here amidst such a wonderful campus, among such acclaimed intellectuals, and outstanding students and scholarship and share your joy and enthusiasm.
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of convocation address, which is: A elderly person, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you). And I intend to respect that tradition.
Each of you stand on the threshold of shaping your future and preparing for life in a world that seems to be getting increasingly challenging to comprehend, and difficult to come to terms with. As you stand waiting to explore the adventure that lies ahead of you, you will have to come to terms with the fact that University education can only take you this far… All that your teachers and professors can do is to lay a foundation for you. But you will have to do the hard work of building on it with the skills that this university has honed in you.
I’ve got three things I want to ask you to ‘learn’ as you move forward, and I think these might be kind of counterintuitive, particularly coming from an activist who is unashamedly disruptive, and concerned mainly with social and economic justice. Here are the three things I’m going to ask of you:
Learn to operate from zones of your incompetence,
Learn to be alive and
Learn to be real
‘Learn to operate from zones of your incompetence’ may sound like advice that is completely out of place in a university convocation. Universities train you with one set of competences but the danger is that they do not allow us to come to terms with what we do not know. As we gain competence in one specialized area of our study, we start becoming totally ignorant of our incompetence in other areas. Feeling incompetent is a safe and sure way to keep acquiring the competence you need to grow and thrive in this dynamic world. The world is changing and progressing at such a rapid pace that no amount of knowledge or skills that you acquire will ever by sufficient or help you face the challenges that man keeps creating for himself today. Learning to operate from zones of your incompetence will give you the humility to explore; to learn newer skills to build on your existing repository; and more importantly give you the freedom to fail.
We need to understand that intellectual arrogance can cause disabling ignorance and we need to over come this. And we can overcome this only when we embrace humility with a desire to learn. Only when we have the humility to accept what we do not know, will we embark on the journey of life-long learning. Remember that every person will have something to teach you. If your attitude is that only smarter people or formal Institutions have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody & everywhere, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.
I remember something that happened to me very early in my life. After my medical graduation, I went to an interior forest area in the Bandipur National Park in Mysore district with a desire to serve the indigenous tribals living there. On a visit to a small tribal hamlet, I joined the meeting of a women’s self help group that was taking place there. There were around 20 women and they were animatedly discussing what to do with one woman who was repeatedly defaulting on her repayments. I had to come to attend this meeting mainly to establish myself as a doctor who now lived in a tribal colony nearby and was eager to help them with their health problems. I knew that many of them had relatives living in the colony where I lived, and I had hoped that the news of my dispensary had reached them. After the welcome and the small talk, we slowly started discussing on what they did when they fell sick. Someone told me that her two-year-old child was having an acute diarrheal episode. I saw this as a good opportunity to establish my relevance as a ‘doctor’ and started telling them about Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). I told them all about diarrhea, how to prevent it, the efficacy of boiling water and ended my talk with how ORS should be prepared and that it should taste like human tears. Little did it occur to me that drinking something tasting like tears required a lot of motivation and may not exactly be something that a two-year-old would like to have. The women were silent and did not respond as enthusiastically as I wanted them to do. I was talking to them about what the World Health Organization (WHO) called the ‘discovery of the century’ and these women just did not seem to care!! Then it occurred to me that these people had more than 10,000 years of anthropological history and must have been having diarrheas all along. They must have been doing something very effective to counter it too. I asked the women what they would do to help this baby. This kick-started a very vibrant and energetic discussion. The women told me that they would spend about a rupee on buying a banana and some flattened rice (called poha in hindi or avalakki in kannada). They would powder the flattened rice and crush the banana and mix the two well. They would then feed this to the baby. If the diarrhea persisted, they would make a decoction out of the peel of pomegranate fruit and make the baby drink it 4-5 times a day.
Here I was, stupidly telling this community to use a poorly tasting drink like ORS while they could give their baby carbohydrates, much needed sodium & potassium and fluids, in a simple yet tasty way. Banana is also a well-known bowel binder. How much traditional wisdom and knowledge exists in such indigenous communities! All that I needed to do was swallow my pride, throw away the arrogance that modern schooling had clouded me with, and come to these people with the humility to learn. One will never be disappointed nor cease to be surprised with the things that people whom we consider ordinary can teach us.
Learn to be Alive
More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda thundered, “He alone lives who lives for others. The rest are more dead than alive”. Being alive is appreciating that our education, our success and our achievements are meaningless if it is not undertaken in the spirit of serving others. And this can happen only when we have a purpose in life that is larger than merely a career. If a career is all about us and our own attainments, living a purposeful life is all about others and our meaningful contribution in making this world a better place. Being alive is all about seeking happiness in the happiness of others.
Today’s generation has learnt to celebrate career successes to the point where we have lost focus on what truly matters. Living your life for others is not limited to only spending your life in the service of others. Your family, the community around you and your self matters too… Balancing our life’s priorities should include making the time for the people who care about you and about whom you care a lot too. Taking our family for granted is the common mistake many do. Life would be worthless if we sacrificed our family and their needs on the altar of career success. Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and over invest in their careers. You should learn not to worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; but learn to worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.
Learn to be Real
To be real is to be yourself. For too long we have come to believe in the images that we and others have been creating for us from a very young age. This comfort-seeking world has convinced you about things that you cannot do and what you are not… From one’s childhood, we are constantly told ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’. We are reminded everyday of our own failures and what we cannot and should not be doing. Very few of us have lived in ecosystems that have celebrated failures and given us the courage and encouragement to believe in ourselves. The world is now calibrated to measure human endeavor by the narrow metric of financial successes and cognitive attainments. Any person who sets out to be true to his own inner self and thinks and acts differently is seen as a non-conformist and too disruptive for anyone’s comfort. Being yourself and not conforming to set patterns that society prescribes for you will allow you to go places where others dread to dare. You now need to convince yourself of the enormous power and potential within you. Learn the power of positivism…understand what you truly are…do not try and live upto the images that you give yourself and the world keeps giving you. Do not lose your authenticity…and you will surely succeed in making this world a better place.
Work with your strengths but more importantly build your strengths around what is passionate for you. And remember that acting on this knowledge of understanding yourself will ensure that you are ‘creatively disruptive’ enough to operate in today’s world of ‘dynamic disequilibrium’.
The changing metrics of success
The benchmark for being successful is rapidly changing…it will no longer be the people who have the skills, knowledge and competence to make money…It will soon be measured by the human and social capital that you enjoy and not by the economic capital that you generate. And remember that it is not people with PhDs from the best of Institutions who will succeed in the future. Success cannot be a life where at best there is an absence of failure in our chosen fields…Survival and success is not going to be driven by how much you know or how well you apply what you know. It is going to be driven by disruption…innovation…digital technology, data management and the leadership that can sustain these processes
It is people who can confidently answer ‘yes’ to the following 4 questions that will enable themselves and those around them to succeed…
– Can you be disruptive?
– Can you lead with both passion and compassion?
– Can you learn to work in a digital environment?
– Are you prepared to live and operate in a data rich eco-system?
Understanding disruption is hard. Disrupting is even harder. Disruption literally uproots and changes how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day lives. Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creatively constructive too.
Only when you learn to be alive and authentic can you generate a passion for living. Living a life for others is what compassion is all about. Passion with compassion can be the formula for the success that you seek.
Young people like you are born and are growing up in a digital world where boundaries of privacy are getting increasingly blurred. Only those who have learnt to operate in this highly interconnected digital environment will learn to thrive and prosper. We live in a knowledge based society and in times of information overload where data is getting thrown at us from multiple directions. Learning to mine, collect, collate, process and apply data in a productive way is what will discriminate the mediocre from the outstanding.
And it is the people who are life-long learners; people who have learnt to be alive and who have learnt to act with authenticity, will be the ones who will be able to make a real difference in the world today. It is these people who have learnt to not only cope but to grow and thrive in a complex world who will end up exercising the leadership to take humanity forward. Managing ourselves and others around us is creating a revolutionary paradigm…Let us all be a part of it and together work with the determined optimism that is required to make this world a truly great place to live and operate in.
Wishing you all the very best,
Dr R Balasubramaniam