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Lessons on success, happiness and life, from an industrialist father to a daughter

In 2009, Gaurav Dalmia, Chairman of Dalmia Family Holdings LLP, a holding company for industrial and financial assets, wrote a letter to his inheritor daughter, proffering sage advice on how she should come out of her comfort zone. The letter is an apt example of the kind of communication that wealthy next-gen business family members ought to receive from the incumbent generation.

April 5, 2009

Dearest Devanshi,

As you go into adult life, and far away from the family, there are a few things I want to say, especially to my sweet, smart, passionate, darling daughter.

To begin with, I want to tell you that life is your servant and not the other way round. You must do what you love, love what you do, and deliver more than you promise! There will be times when you will have to do things you do not enjoy. After all, the world is not custom-made for any of us and we have to navigate. But, overall, if you do not enjoy your life, small moments and every day life, then something is wrong. Just change it and find your true calling. This true calling must be yours alone, not too influenced by peer pressure, social expectations and your past conditioning. You are the master; choose your life.

The second point I want to make is about versatility; it is one of the most important character traits. My experience says that versatility has two components: adaptability and multiple skills. I have seen that people who adapt to circumstances, are the happiest. Think of the world as a stage. Things come and go, just as on stage. So does agony and ecstasy. Do not be too dependent on ecstasy alone. Agony can help shape and guide us as well. I do not know a single success that does not have toil, failure, doubt etc – in other words, agony – associated with it at some time. The trick is not to be overwhelmed by it, but to learn from it and overcome it. The lesson for us that we have to adapt to the world, as the world is not going to adapt to us. Multiple skills help us to adapt. Sometimes we use logic, sometimes creativity. Sometimes we add complexity to a situation to get a perfect solution, sometimes we add simplicity. Sometimes we have to be comfortable with just concepts, sometimes with details. Sometimes we have to lead from the front, but often times, like a shepherd, from behind. Sometimes a sense of humour works, at other times seriousness is the order of the day. This versatility makes us happier, more positive, more energetic, more patient, more everything. It is not just a philosophical concept; it is a practical trait.

A corollary of this is: you have to consciously come out of your comfort zone. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a typical “rich kid”, who was groomed to be a successful professional, chose law as a career and did very well in it, but came out of his comfort zone to do what he believed in, he transformed from an aristocratic suit wearing man-of-the-world, to being a nationalistic “half naked fakir”, as Churchill called him, and ultimately became Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India. Closer to us, my grandfather came as a poor man from a small village, moved to a town called Calcutta which may have seemed strange to a villager, started in the world of business without any background whatsoever, which may have caused stress in his mind as to whether he can succeed in it, and ultimately became one of the richest men of his times in India. Many a times, we want something, but we do not act because we do not want to come out of our comfort zone. Then we kid ourselves that there are other simpler ways to get what we want, or we do not really want it, or what we want is not worth it. In this way, we fail ourselves everyday. I have done that many times, so I know. So has almost everyone else I know. If you overcome this, you will be a star!

Another lesson I want to share with you: we all have to learn to distinguish between hope and expectation. Hope is pure, simple desire. On the other hand, expectation is the belief that this desire will come true. Hopes can be empty. Expectations come when our heart knows we have done something tangible, and deserve what we hope. Hope is akin to a lottery; expectation is akin to a command. Hope is the first step towards result. As hope is followed by action, it leads to expectation, feedback, more action, results! If this sounds like a science formula, it is because, in many ways, it is as deterministic as a science formula. Spend less time on hope, more on expectation. And see the difference in results.

It is true: the world rewards courage more than intellect. When we are young, we tend to respect intelligence. As you go through life, you learn that intelligence is one of the most over-rated things out there. Intelligence is a pre-requisite to success, no doubt about it, but it is not the driver. Courage is. Courage to act. Courage to take a risk. Courage to appear foolish. Courage to waste time. Courage to give up on what might be easy. Courage to encounter obstacles. When you do well in college, in physics or philosophy, and get a top-notch job, you might feel that your accomplishments in physics or philosophy got you the dream-job. Utter crap! When I see an ace physics student, unless I am hiring him for a research lab, which most people are not hiring for, what I see in him is a sharp mind, work ethic, problem solving skills, competitive spirit etc. Excellence in physics is almost a byproduct. So, in college, you do not have to ace marketing or game theory, you have to ace sharpening your mind, your work ethic, your problem solving skills, your drive etc. And that will require far more than intellect.

Whether you enjoyed the book “The Secret” or not, I strongly believe that life is a self fulfilling prophecy. You can hear it from legendary businessman Henry Ford: “Whether you believe you can do anything or not, you are right”. Or from the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Shallow men believe in luck, strong men believe in cause and effect.” Or from the Upanishad, which I think says it in the best possible manner: “You are what your deep driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Therefore, your inner voice is what matters most. If you can command that, you can command everything. Do not let circumstances, day-to-day events, history, society, especially parents, modulate this inner voice. You can advice from whomsoever you want in life as you make choices, but there should be only one modulator of that voice: you.

And yes, we must talk about success and failure. They are a part of life. Also, they are akin to dream sequences from Hindi movies. I say this because it is transitory. You win today, you don’t win tomorrow, you win again the day after. That happens all the time. Arrogance and self-doubt often develop as we go through this cycle. Please control those emotions. I am not sure which is worse, but both are life-sapping. Since you are an artist, I will give you a quote from renowned artist and sculptor, Vonnegut, who actually said this at a graduation ceremony at MIT: “Sometimes you are ahead, sometimes you are behind. The race is long. And in the end, it is with yourself.” Remember this from a fellow artist.

I want to talk about ambition. This is not be confused with over-ambition. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we are embarrassed about ambition. You don’t have to wear your ambition on your sleeve, as they say, but you must have the ambition and the drive to be the best you can be. There is an excellent film called “Wall Street”. In that, there is a dialogue, which has become a classic: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. It works. It clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all it’s forms: for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.” Unfortunately, in the movie, this statement was made by a crook. Yet I agree with this statement hundred percent. Be greedy, but in a good way, not in a dysfunctional way. Think of it another way: If you strive to ace math, only then you have a chance of doing it. You can never ace math, if you work towards getting a mere distinction. You can never get a distinction, if you strive for a mere first division. And you never get a first division, if you strive to get a pass mark. If you can set your standard high in a rather inconsequential math exam, you should set a high standard in more consequential life choices. Oh, and remember, expectation, not just hope.

My great discovery is that calmness is a good tool to have, partly because I have less of this tool, than I need to have. When I was a young child, I used to get hassled about small things (mom might say I should not use past tense because I still get hassled about small things). Then one day, I was in some odd tantrum mood, my mother was out of town, so my grandmother was trying to deal with my madness. What she told me was so prophetic, I still remember it. I think I wanted chocolate and there was none at home, hence the tantrum. She calmly told me to think as to what would happen if I did not get chocolate that very minute. When I used the logical side of my brain, as the emotional side was way too excited, I figured that nothing would happen if I did not get chocolate that very minute. In fact, nothing would happen, if I did not get chocolate for the next two weeks. Lots might happen if I did not get chocolate ever again, but this urgency was completely misplaced. Since then, I have figured, most things that bug us as are as meaningless as the metaphorical chocolate and the simple rhetorical question – “What would happen if I did not get this right away?” – would help move on with life rather than being imprisoned in an unfortunate moment. Try it, if it can work for me, it will work for anyone, and can bring a daily calmness to life.

Since this is turning into Philosophy 101, and I might now even write a book on it, I want to talk about illusions. People do not tend to see the world as it is, they tend to see it as they are. Aryaman sees everything in terms of cricket, Aanya sees everything in terms of love, mom sees everything in terms of aesthetics, I see everything in terms of “another hassle”, and you see everything in terms of eating out. Get the drift? On a more serious note, the lens we use to see the world is our inner self; that is what causes illusions. People whose minds work in a crooked manner are more suspicious, because that is how they think and that is the world they have created around them. People who know they are not good at something are more defensive about receiving feedback. People who are achievers, see other people’s achievements. I suspect that people who are disillusioned see other people’s failures. We have to keep this lens clean so we can see the truth as it is, not biased by society, fads, circumstances, emotions, whatever. Very often, we rationalise the truth and live with illusions. Psychologists have established that man is not always rational (not just thinking logically), but more often, he is rationalizing (his mind justifies actions that have been already taken, for right or wrong reasons). We must maximize rationality, minimize rationalization, see the world as it is, not exaggerate or do selective viewing to create illusions. We must do this, for as Rabindranth Tagore said: “Truth comes as a conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend.”

Do you believe in God? I believe in God, more so when I am anxious, and less so when I feel confident. Just like a child looks for his parents at times of need but knows at all times that there is a fallback: mom and dad. Without going into the merits of the argument as to whether God exists or not, just the belief in God gives peace, humility, tolerance and wisdom. When you were six, you believed your father could solve everything and that gave you immense comfort. When you were sixteen, you thought your father could solve absolutely nothing. By the time you are twenty-six, I promise you, you will have a balanced view and the conviction that your father can help solve many of your problems. Because I am over twenty-six already, I believe that the eternal father, using the resources of the material world, my own self being one such resource, can help solve many of my problems. Just having that mythical father figure, and the comfort it brings, is worth it. Why be an orphan, when one can have a divine parent looking out for you.

Someone once told me that if I could give my child one gift, it should be enthusiasm. Let me give you this gift of enthusiasm and energy once again. I want to end by saying, I love you, and by quoting my all-time favourite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, which has guided me, and I think it will serve you well also:

If you can keep your head when all about you,
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken,
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew,
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you,
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son!

Love always,

Your father

P.S. This letter has reminded me there are many things I have to do myself, so we can swap progress notes whenever you like.

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