Learning To Be Good in Something

If I have an wish granted, I would want to go back to Kolkata and live there. Indeed, it is easy for me to do so: I have family, friends, home and everything else there. The only thing that stands between thinking about it and doing it is one obsession that made me travel in the first place. It is about being very good - the best one can be - in something.

I have grown an obsession with being exceptional. This is because I had the most unremarkable childhood, happy, bland and completely devoid of surprises. I was always a good student, but never the best. I never put in the effort and was always distracted enough not to come at the top of the class in the exams, but always just behind. I was happy that way: I would often spend the last few hours before an exam thinking or doing something unrelated as I was confident that I would pass anyway. I studied a subject in college which I did not love, which meant I studied everything else than the subject I was expected to study, and ended up with a workable, but unremarkable, outcome. It is only at work I really discovered that the pride of being good - great - in one's own area or profession.

Those who know me would know about my many interests. I read various books - still - as my interests keep shifting. I love history, literature and poetry, but also books on psychology, politics and economics, which I spent most time on these days. I am trying to reignite my childhood obsession on Astronomy, not because I liked sciences but because this seemed to be area where science met the unknown, and a latter-day hobby of photography, which I invested great amount of time and energy on, but somewhat abandoned it soon after my mother's death. I do like to write - as evidenced in the output on this blog - and see myself retiring into a writing career when I had enough of everything else. But, despite this range and rather confusing mix of things that I do and want to do, I spend most of my days striving to be best in an area I have chosen for myself, and have given up most of the lesser pleasures, going to movies, sleeping in the afternoon etc., in search of it.

This isn't a new thing. My first few years of working life were spent in traveling around, setting up the outposts of two great Indian Computer Training franchises. Every new centre was a win, launching them perfectly and with better results were things my life revolved on. While I always fell short of the award of excellence the company handed out at annual functions - I was always deemed to be too adventurous and somewhat 'too intelligent' - I got other recognitions: A very senior exec telling me that I am possibly the best they have in education marketing, and the boss, who always stood between me and the coveted awards, confessing that I was the most intelligent employee she worked with, while reminding me that intelligence was a double-edged sword.

I resented it then, but soon afterwards, realised her point: One, she meant I lacked focus; but also it was about my questioning the assumptions and being disobedient in a non-subversive way, something most managers in India hated anyway. This somewhat gave me my obsession: Being the best in what I do, and to continually up the benchmark as I went along. I also learnt the value of humour - with some effort - because this seemed the perfect foil for my questioning the assumptions and my deliberate, daily subversion, the quest for a better way of doing things. Soon, I felt I outgrew my role in Calcutta, the regional outpost of the company I was working for, and also the international positions the company could offer me thereafter. This was my trigger to come to England to work, though I saw myself only as an 'escalator migrant', because what I truly wanted to do was to go to America.

In that sense, I am still on the escalator. However, my obsession morphed from being an individual excelling in education marketing to help create an excellent education institution, global in its delivery and global in its deliverable, as one colleague puts it succinctly, which will meet the needs and aspirations of a global generation of students. I am still firmly in love with America - most books I read these days are histories of American colleges and stories of American entrepreneurs - but I have grown out of my dreams of living a placid suburban life in, perhaps, California. I see myself on the road for rest of my life, at least till the retirement into a writing career at which point I go back to Calcutta, and a mission to spread the spirit of creative thinking, enterprise and innovativeness all over the world through the little company we are building now.

This new goal incorporates all the elements of the old one - achieving professional excellence, developing and maintaining a certain kind of personality and style of discourse, gaining expert knowledge about higher education industry and international exposure - and expands it by including factors missed out in search of individual excellence and success, such as knowing people, and working with others to create a shared vision. I believe this is where I came up short in the first twenty years of my working life: My focus on being good was focused on myself. This is possibly why, despite being the smartest guy around the table, my bosses were never sure of me, and I missed out on Awards of Excellence which I so coveted. It is only now, after all the wisdom of a traveler, I learn these things, that individual excellence may not matter unless I can build something great. So my goal of becoming the world's finest education marketeer, which was indeed my goal at a point of time in my life, is transforming into the goal of creating the world's most student-responsive higher education company.


SN said…
I loved this post! Totally relate to it. However, I'd say I still lack focus and I hope I'll be on track soon.

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