Thursday, September 27, 2012

Of Satellite Launches and Commitment

A recent incident within the family got me thinking about the whole nature of commitment at work. My wife and I went to Mumbai as one of the elders in the family had passed away. That day was a red-letter day in Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s history: They were scheduled to launch their 100th satellite.

The younger son of the deceased – let me call him Ravi, is a test engineer at ISRO. He was to be at the launch site, and instead came to Mumbai for the funeral – shattered and scattered. After he performed the last rites of his mother, the first thing he asked when he came home was to turn on the television. He then sat in front of the TV and followed the launch of the satellite.

There, as I saw him fully hooked to the TV, I noticed a certain ambivalence in him. On one hand, there was pain of losing his dear mother and on the other, a deep sense of concern for the outcome of the launch. When the launch was declared a success, he heaved a sigh of relief. And why not! He was part of the team that had tested each and every aspect of the rocket that went into space.

Like Ravi, people in the government are not really paid big salaries. They have modest means of earning and living – very different from the private sector. The sense of commitment was outstanding! As I thought about this incident, it helped providing answers pertaining to purpose and commitment.

What really motivates people is a sense of purpose. What really drives commitment is a clearly stated goal, and a will to succeed. Commitment really comes from within. It depends largely on how you have been wired, how you have been shaped by the environment, how you have risen to the high demands placed on you.

I was absolutely in awe of all the people at ISRO and their leadership team, including former Director, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam for instilling a culture of commitment, excellence and pride in what they do for this country. They have managed to instill a deep sense of purpose and patriotism.

Coming to think of it, the light bulbs flashed – commitment is no rocket science!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Of Math Tests & Second Chances

A profound insight into building character happened early in my life during my days in college. I was then a student of Mathematics at Vivekananda College, Madras. I remember Prof. Venkat, who taught us Theory of Automotive languages – a tough subject. Prof. Venkat, who returned from the US, was a giver. He loved to teach and accepted a salary of just Re.1. He came with the clear intention of making a difference, and he was a tough guy. As a professor, Prof. Venkat was par excellence. He was also one of my early teachers of ‘Ethics in Action.’

Mid-Year exams were approaching. The theory part was a bone crusher.  Many, like me, were not confident about the exam and we were trying to see how we could sit by the side of someone who knew the answers! I had never failed in an exam and this was going to be the first, for sure. On the day of the exam, when we all filed into the class, Prof. Venkat quickly distributed the question papers and asked us to keep them face down. We were a nervous wreck. Noticing a little flicker of fear in our eyes, he asked, “How many of you are not at all ready for the exam today?” A few of us raised our hands, hesitatingly. He said “Students sitting in room, I urge you not to copy. It challenges my imagination that somebody would have to copy in Mathematics!” Hopes faded in an instant.

Prof. Venkat continued: “If some of you believe that you are not ready, I will give you another chance. I will reschedule this exam to the next Sunday and we can have the same 3-hour text. I will change the question paper but next week would be your last chance. How many of you would want to come in on Sunday for the test?” We could have hugged Prof. Venkat. Only four people took the test that day. The rest of us came in on the following Sunday.

The incident left a deep impression on me.  Prof. Venkat gave me a second chance. He taught me to be honest. The simple deed of giving and not making a big deal about it was an act of grace. I will always remember Prof. Venkat for this magnanimous act. He taught me an important principle of human endeavor – to give people a chance. 

Over the years, I realized that it is very important to give each other a second chance. We all need a second chance – both as a giver and a receiver.  In giving you receive, and in receiving you take the responsibility to pay it forward. Recently, I was cleaning my cupboard and saw my old text book, and out fell a photograph of Prof Venkat. He had taught us more than just math … and I smiled.