17 Apr 2016

Straying Away from the Herd

Deepak Shenoy wrote a fascinating post on how we Indians are afraid of straying off the beaten path, afraid of risk, afraid of failure. It’s so good that I’m quoting it its entirety: 

The willingness to fail has been largely absent from Indian middle class lives. I’ve dealt with the fear of failure so much that when it’s not there, I start getting worried.

In class 12 I was told that if I didn’t get into a coaching class I would never get a decent “rank” in CET. It would’ve stretched our budget at the time (Rs. 5,500 per month for coaching in Physics, Chemistry and Maths). And I wasn’t considered quality enough to get in. And if you weren’t in, you failed already, they told me. I ended up getting the 64th rank in the state, among 50,000 students then. You don’t fail because you haven’t met some bullshit precondition.

My resume is horribly imperfect. I have started companies, sold some, done nothing for a couple years, and have shifted from a tech guy to a finance person. I didn’t take a job I was offered in the US because I wanted to stay in India and start my own company. Of many things that I’ve done, when I did them, people told me I would be a wretched failure. It didn’t scare me off, even though I did fail and stumble many times.

Oh yes I’ve failed. I’ve taken big losses on trades because I couldn’t take the smaller losses. I’ve lost software projects because I didn’t bid fast enough, or low enough. I’ve failed and quit a company I started. It doesn’t matter that I did; I hold myself to no lower esteem because I have failed in the past.

I am by no measure an epitome of success. But I get by. And I’ve gotten by far longer than my own excel sheets predicted. But the fear of failure is all around. People are afraid to fail, to veer away from a known tried and tested path. They’re afraid that they won’t get a monthly salary, and will not dip into their savings to do what they really want to do. They pressure their kids into what they believe is success – which in India today is: after their 12th, they’ll go abroad to study.

Schools don’t teach new things, because the new things aren’t in the syllabus.

Colleges hardly collaborate on research, which is usually left to someone who publishes a paper somewhere once in a few years. Research, by nature, is something new, but they hardly trust anything new.

Corporates don’t really do that much research. Big car companies have microscopic changes to adopt to Indian conditions, but no one’s really gone out of the way to fix, for example, the terribly designed autorickshaw. Even the new technology and ecommerce startups have only incremental innovations in India – there’s hardly anything dramatically new and exciting (like Tesla cars or Google Search or such).

Even our space research department prides itself on the low failure rate. Our banks haven’t failed, says the RBI, with pride. Our corporate defaults and bankruptcies are low and long-winded.

If we don’t fail enough, we don’t create enough, or try hard enough. We don’t do things better because we’re taking the path that failure is not an option. At some point, we have to start telling ourselves – not just as a startup community but as a country – that it’s okay to fail. That it’s fine if our kids don’t get those degrees. That it’s fine if we, in the process of discovering new things, fall behind.

As a country, the collective hatred of failure takes us back, because we stop trying new things. Like in the awesome movie, “Finding Nemo”, when Nemo’s dad says to Dory that he promised his wife he wouldn’t let anything happen to Nemo, Dory replies:

If you don’t let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him.

And that will be our loss.

We Indians have a herd mentality. We go where everyone else goes. We stick to the beaten path and are scared to go off it. There are many paths to a destination, and there are many destinations one could aspire to in one’s life. So, not getting into a coaching center doesn’t mean that you won’t get into a good engineering college, and not being an engineer is perfectly fine since there are other things one could do in one’s life.

We have too linear a conception of life: you do X, then Y, and then Z, and now you’re settled. As if being “settled” is the highest achievement in human life. Well, I always want to be unsettled! It’s fine if, at each stage, you’re not sure where to go next or what to do. If anything, it’s probably a sign of health as opposed to a failing. It’s okay to take a path and find that it leads nowhere and backtrack. Or to take a more circuitous route to a given destination. Or to walk along a path and then realise that the destination it takes you to is not where you want to go after all, and then choose a different path.

Life is not about following a predefined path, like sheep on a trail. Life is about exploration. You have clarity only in retrospect. As Bob Dylan put it, he who is not busy being born is busy dying.

Indian parents should give their child more freedom as to what they want to do in life, and not override the child’s wishes and instincts and desires so strongly. Parents should be coaches, not bosses. And parents may be wrong, which is a reason to think twice before pushing their views strongly. 

Companies shouldn’t keep selling the same product with minor changes and end up achieving nothing over the long run, whether measured in their contribution to society or measured in profit. Perhaps not taking a risk is the biggest risk of all.

We should respect rather than look down upon people who have failed. Because they did something to begin with, and had the guts to follow their heart, which is more than the armchair critics have done.

Dance to Your Own Tune

You need to dance to your own tune, but make sure it really is your own tune.

Don’t be swayed too much by other people’s opinions. For example, there’s no shortage of glowing press about startups, which tends to give us a misleading picture. If anything, starting a startup is probably about failure than it is about redefining industries.

It’s easy for people to say how how great it is that you’re doing a startup, because they are not the ones who’ll pay the price if it goes kaput. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start a startup, just that you should go in with your eyes open.

Unless you already have a lot of money, you’ll find that money has a point of diminishing returns. The first lac per month of income you have does far more for your quality of living than the second or the tenth [1]. There’s little I can buy with an income of 10 lac a month that I can’t buy with 1 lac a month that has a big impact on my life. So, the right choice for me was to take the certain income over the theoretically higher uncertain one.

It’s also misleading to frame this as following your passion because most people have multiple things they are passionate about. Taking a steady but unexciting job may give you money to fulfil your other passions like travel, photography, music or astronomy. You won’t make the right decision if you consider only one dimension of this.

Ignore the idealistic exhortations from the US or other developed countries telling you follow your dreams. It’s easy for them to say that given their high standard of living. Even if they fail, they’ll still have a high standard of living, like reliable electricity, water, living in a clean area, being able to travel by car, and so on. Failure may be cool in the US but I’d rather have full-home AC.

Remember the parable of the fisherman returning from the sea with only a few fish. A businessman suggests he spends more time catching more fish, but the fisherman says that he prefers to relax, to take a stroll in the village with his wife, to drink wine, and to sing and dance with his friends. The businessman offers advice on how to become more successful: spend more time fishing, catch more fish, use the money to buy a bigger boat, use that to catch more fish, and use that money to set up a company, and so on. What then, the fisherman asks. The businessman says that he could then relax, take a stroll with his wife, drink wine, and sing and dance with his friends. “Isn’t that what I’m doing now?” the fisherman asks.

Make sure you’re not changing success for success’s sake. Success is a means to an end, not the end.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I’d pick a concrete benefit I get today over an uncertain benefit of unknown value I may get someday.

The point of all this is not that you shouldn’t take risk. Blind avoidance of risk is just as bad as blind embrace of risk. You should think about it carefully and make the right decision for you, given your circumstances and your values and priorities in life. Do what’s right for you, not what’s glamorous in the eyes of random people.

[1] So you should ignore any academic analysis of risk that is framed as asking you to choose between (say) ₹1 lac or a 20% chance of making ₹10 lac. 

It’s not the money you should optimise for, but its impact on your quality of life.

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