(21 July 2017) Learning from Ashish

My colleague and friend, Dr Ashish Lele, shall be leaving NCL soon and taking up a career in the industry. Ashish Lele was inspiring to many of us and my young friends. There are many things to learn from him. I am blogging here my brief speech at his farewell for the benefit of young students.

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Thanks Ashish!
By, V. Premnath
Date: 21 July 2017

  • We are also using today as an occasion to recall AKL’s 24 years at NCL and thank him for his contributions to S&T, NCL and the country, enriching his students, peer-group and colleagues personally and professionally, and also being such a wonderful, friendly, down-to-earth, no-nonsense colleague and HOD who was always a joy to work with.

 

  • I wish AKL would have continued at NCL and provided leadership for this organization. But I can understand and imagine the kind of issues he has been thinking about before taking the decision to leave NCL. I can only wish that one day he will come back to provide leadership at NCL and also for the country in pursuing strategic technology objectives. I hope NCL or CSIR will rise up to be a deserving place. I can only pray that NCL and other Government institutions shape up to provide inspiring, achieving and happy work places for talent at all levels.
  • I have known AKL from 1997 when I first joined NCL as an ad hoc scientist. Those very were turbulent times for me on all fronts.  I was seeking purpose in my work and life, and it is very important to have somebody to talk to who is at the same wavelength as you — or at least is generous enough to make you believe that!! Ashish and Ashwini were my sounding posts for me! I would walk to their house every now and then. I would never be turned away. I would always be received warmly. And the discussions would be meaningful and happily distracting at times.  It was so critical for a new scientist to find such a welcome — I hope we can learn that from Ashish and Ashwini.
  • I want to tell some of our younger friends here of some things I have learnt from observing and interacting with Ashish :
    • Generosity: I have hardly ever seen anybody more generous than AKL. He never hesitated in helping others. He generously gave his time to many. He is a generous teacher. He is generous in giving credit.
    • Humility: AKL is clearly the most decorated scientist in NCL.  And that has never made even the newest student hesitate in talking to him!
    • Excellence: It is such a joy to have people around you who excel — it pushes you to do more. On a personal note, the only time I managed to get the highest score in the training programs we used to run for industry was when AKL was not around!
    • Passion of engineering: You need to learn the excitement of seeing “engineering at work” from AKL. He was so excited seeing the Kalpakkam facility.  We went to see the tunnel under the Pir Panjal when it was being built — and AKL was thrilled like child with the latest candy!
    • Joy in little things in life: Something, which I have never been able to imbibe enough of but have always admired.
    • Not getting stuck, not getting hung-up, changing and moving on: Very relevant in the current context of AKL moving out of NCL ;-)

 

  • For all of us at PSE, we are aware that AKL did pioneering work in hydrogels, rheology, nano-composites, engineering plastics, biodegradable and natural polymers, fuel cells etc. He mentored several excellent students. He provided leadership for PPC, CFPE, PAML and PSE amongst other things. He set very high standards for projects, research training, continuing education and everything else that he laid his hands on. I hope our scientists, in future to, can live up to the standards AKL has set.

 

  •  I have to conclude now. Ashish, we wish you all the best in your future endeavors! We know that you will excel in what you do. I hope you find what you are looking for and that gives you immense satisfaction and happiness — I think you deserve that and more! Needless to say, we are with you. We thank you for your immense efforts you have put in for CFPE, PAML, PSE, NCL and CSIR. That was invaluable and irreplaceable. At the end of the day, we enjoyed the journey with you over the last several years!

AKL - before 2007 AKL - after 2007 AKL - when not at work Farewell AKL

 

(10 June 2017) Mission Admission — A reality check!

Mission Admission:  A reality check!

By, Dr. V. Premnath

It is (once again) that time of the year when students (10th, 12th) and parents are all breathing heavy carrying the weight of hopes, aspirations, worries, hyper-competition, lack of information, too few choices or too many choices, decisions and (of course) long queues! It is time to take one step back, do a reality check, put things in perspective and then jump back into the ways of the “real” world!

Taking a step back:  The general belief is that the choices we make or feel compelled to make in 10th or 12th are going to be the most important turning points of one’s life. It is true that these are important milestones but are they the all-determining decisions? How many global leaders in their own chosen professions (except perhaps in academia), are known or remembered for their excellence in winning the education “rat race”? Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan, Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Saina Nehwal, Deepak Parekh, Verghese Kurien, APJ Kalam, Devi Shetty, and so on? For many, these moments will be deeply disappointing and appear as if doors are closing for them forever. While keenly watching doors close, are you forgetting to notice the doors that are opening on the other side? Is moving with the “crowd” blind sighting you to your (or your children’s) unique strengths, gifts and the immense potential to contribute to this world.  If for example, you want to contribute to global health, is being a medical doctor the only way to do so? How about being a scientist studying causes of diseases, or an inventor developing new drugs and devices, or an entrepreneur building a company that makes and sells drugs and biological, or an government official administering an national program in health, or public health professional overseeing major health initiatives, or a social worker in a non-profit working on rural health activities etc etc.

Reality check: Here are some observations and questions to get you thinking. Why are we educating our children? Is it to train them to be part of the labor force (however white collared it might be) or is to help them achieve their fullest potential? Will they be confident and passionate young people shaping the future? Are we providing them tool sets to survive the world or thrive in this world? In the process of running the race, are we sure we are running the “right” race?  Has winning the race become the end in itself? Is the journey worthwhile and the destination desirable? We know that every body’s journey in life will be different and personal; then why should our choices in education not be personalized? It is made out as if there are only a few career tracks worth considering —- is that really so? If you look at the people who made the most difference during the year or decade or who influenced the world or contributed to happiness and success, which professions did they come from? I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer painting a wall. Tom Sawyer is given a punishment to paint the wall and he “sells” that as the coolest thing to do for a young boy amongst all his friends. Finally, all his friends are competing to paint the wall while Tom Sawyer sits back to watch the fun. Have we made careers in engineering and medicine the metaphorical equivalent of “painting the wall”?

The opportunity: I firmly believe that these milestones are important opportunities for young students to break away from the usual instructional mode of learning (which they get constantly from schools, tutorials and even parents) and ask questions about what interests and excites them. What is that one thing in life they would love to do? What would be satisfying? What will keep him or her working day and night on the chosen task till the goal is achieved without seeking all alternative hobby or holiday? What is that they would love to excel in —however, small in scope — and excel in such a way that the world will seek them out for their excellence and reward them rather than they having to seek jobs?  This is also a great opportunity for parents and those guiding young students to really rethink what they see as the future! The future is being shaped and reshaped with much greater speed.  Are we responding to change fast enough? I am reminded of the 1967 movie The Graduate featuring Dustin Hoffman where he is advised – “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”  Plastics probably still have a future but the one foreseen in 1967 has already history and has been tapped (for ex, by Reliance). Are we being wise in foreseeing the future for our children and guiding them in that direction? Does IT represent the future? Or will themes in health, energy, environment, food security, water, materials, electronics etc be more important? If so, are we preparing our kids for the future?  Would it not be fantastic to see our kids bring new energy to bear on the most pressing problems of the day?

Some advise for youngsters: Find time to explore your dreams. Identify people who you admire and respect, and study their career path and choices they made. Anchor your self in your interests and passions and build unique capabilities in those areas. Find places that excel in those domains. Systematically develop excellence in your chosen field!  Remember it is a marathon and not a sprint. Developing excellence takes time and consistent efforts over years. Success will come automatically and making a living will not be an issue — you will not have to chase jobs, they will come to you!

Final words: I keep in mind Robert Frost’s memorable words –“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

—–

Dr Premnath is Head, NCL Innovations and Director Venture Center. He writes blogs for young people at blog.premnath.org 

Notes to editor: High-resolution photo can be found at http://www.premnath.org/images/Dr-V-Premnath.JPG

Excerpts from “Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike” by Phil Knight.

Excerpts from “Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike” by Phil Knight.

 

I have just finished reading the memoir of Phil Knight about his journey as an entrepreneur – the story of creating Nike. The book does a great job of giving a glimpse of an entrepreneurial journey – the genesis, the humble and lonely beginnings, the commitment and persistence, the ups and downs, the surprises etc. In particular, Knight gives the readers a peak into what happens inside the mind of an entrepreneur that I found very interesting and helpful. Essential reading for entrepreneurs and incubator managers!

For those who wish to reflect, I am compiling some excerpts from the book:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Knight’s teacher about venturing into the trails in Oregon– “The cowards never started, and the weak dies along the way – that leaves us.” Us. Some rare strain of pioneer spirit was discovered along that trail, my teacher believed, some outsized sense of possibility mixed with a diminished capacity for pessimism – and it was our job as Oregonians to keep that strain alive.

But deep down I was searching for something else, something more. I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all … different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world. I wanted to win. No, that’s not right. I simply didn’t want to lose.

There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.

The world was so overrun with war and pain and misery, the daily grind was so exhausting and often unjust – maybe the only answer, I thought, was to find some prodigious, improbable dream that seemed worthy, that seemed fun, that seemed a good fit, and chase it with an athlete’s single-minded dedication and purpose. Like it or not, life is a game. Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that. More than anything, that was the thing I did not want.

History is one long processional of crazy ideas. The things I loved most – books, sports, democracy, free enterprise – started as crazy ideas.

For that matter, few ideas are as crazy as my favorite thing, running. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed. When you run around an oval track, or down an empty road, you have no real destination. At least, none that can fully justify the effort. The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not just that there’s no finish line; it’s that you define the finish line. Whatever pleasures or gains you derive from the act of running, you must find them within. It’s all in how you frame it, how you sell it to yourself. Every runner knows this. You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you’re running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death. So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy … just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

——

But first I’d need to change my whole approach. I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.

Self is the bald-faced lie we tell ourselves daily, and happiness requires seeing through the lie, debunking it. “To study the self”, said the thirteenth-century Zen Master Dogen, “is to forget the self.”

In Zen and the Art of Archery, “Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is reached … when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one’s own sword and how to wield it … All is emptiness: your own self, the flashing sword, and the arms that wield it. Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path yourself”, said the Buddha.

“Expect nothing, seek nothing, grasp nothing” – Japanese poets

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” – Confucius.

MacArthur –“You are remembered for the rules you break.”

“All are proud of their craft. God speaks of his work; how much more should man.” – Eleazar ben Azariah, First century rabbi.

“Don’t go to sleep one night. What you most want will come to you then. Warmed by a sun inside you’ll see wonders.” – Rumi, thirteenth-century Persian poet.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” — General Patton.

“You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory …. Without victory, there is no survival.” — Winston Churchill

But my hope was that when I failed, if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years, to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.

I wanted what everyone wants. To be me, full-time.

Life is growth. You grow or you die.

Each of us found pleasure, whenever possible, in focusing on one small task. One task, we often said, clears the mind.

“Because,” Woodell’s mother said, “if you can’t trust the company your son is working for, then who can you trust?”

No news was bad news, no news was good news – but no news was always some sort of news.

Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. Lifers used the phrase cheerfully to describe other lifers, men and women who had toiled so long and hard in the shoe trade, they thought and talked about nothing else. It was an all-consuming mania, a recognizable psychological disorder, to care so much about insoles and outsoles, linings and welts, rivets and vamps. But I understood. The average person takes seventy-five hundred steps a day, 274 million steps over the course of a long life, the equivalent of six times around the globs – shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of the journey. Shoes were their way of connecting with humanity. What better way of connecting, shoe dogs thought, than by refining the hinge that joins each person to the world’s surface?

It was dark as I walked out of the office building, into the crowded Tokyo street. A feeling came over me, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I felt spent, but proud. I felt drained, but exhilarated. I felt everything I ever hoped to feel after a day’s work. I felt like an artist, a creator. I looked back over my shoulder, took one last look at Nissho’s offices. Under my breath I said, “We made this.”

Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t care if he dies crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first.

When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.

Pre said as much himself. “A race is a work of art,” he told a reporter, “that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

“No brilliant idea was ever born in a conference room,” he assured the Dane. “But a lot of silly ideas have died there,” said Stahr. — F Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon.

Pre was most famous for saying, “Somebody may beat me – but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”

Like most companies, we had role models. Sony, for instance. Sony was the Apple of its day. Profitable, innovative, efficient – and it treated its workers well. When pressed, I often said I wanted to be like Sony. At root, however, I still aimed and hoped for something bigger, and vaguer. I would search my mind and heart and the only thing I could come up with was this word –“winning”. It wasn’t much, but it was far, far better than the alternative. Whatever happened, I just didn’t want to lose.

This question of winning and losing. Money wasn’t our aim, we agreed. Money wasn’t our end game. But whatever our aim or end, money was the only means to get there. More money than we had on hand.

If watching Shorter go off in shoes other than mine could affect me so deeply, it was now official: Nike was more than just a shoe. I no longer simply made Nikes; Nikes were making me. If I saw an athlete choose another shoe, if I saw anyone choose another shoe, it wasn’t just a rejection of the brand alone, but of me. I told myself to be reasonable, not everyone in the world was going to wear Nike. And I won’t say that I became upset every time I saw someone walking down the street in a running shoe that wasn’t mine.

“Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.” – Nike advertisement.

But instead of cherishing how far we’d come, I saw only how far we had to go. My window looked onto a beautiful stand of pines, and I definitely couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I didn’t understand what was happening, in the moment, but now I do. The years of stress were taking their toll. When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly. At just the moment I needed to be my sharpest, I was approaching burnout.

When you hired an accountant, you knew he or she could count. When you hired a lawyer, you knew he or she could talk. When you hired a marketing expert, or product developer, what did you know? Nothing. You couldn’t predict what he or she could do, or if he or she could do anything. And the typical business school graduate? He or she didn’t want to start out with a bag selling shoes. Plus, they all had zero experience, so you were simply rolling the dice based on how well they did in an interview. We didn’t have enough margin for error to roll the dice on anyone.

In time we all agreed to pretend it was no big deal. We’d learned a valuable lesson. Don’t put twelve innovations into one shoe. It asks too much of the shoe, to say nothing of the design tea. We reminded each other that there was honor in saying, “ Back to the drawing board.” We reminded each other of the many waffle irons Bowerman had ruined.

It seems wrong to call it “business.” It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher – and none of us wavered in the belief that “stakes” didn’t mean “money”. For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living – and at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted t, to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is — you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.

In one sense our campus is a topographical map of Nike’s history and growth; in another it’s a diorama of my life. In yet another sense it’s a living, breathing expression of that vital human emotion, maybe the most vital of all, after love. Gratitude.

I thought of that phrase, “It’s just business.” It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.

I keep thinking of one line in The Bucket List. “You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”

To study the self is to forget the self. Mi casa, su casa. Oneness – in some way, shape, or form, it’s what every person I’ve ever met has been seeking.

International trade always, always benefits both trading nations. Another thing I often heard from those same professors was the old maxim: “When goods don’t pass international borders, soldiers will.” Though I’ve been known to call business war without bullets, it’s actually a wonderful bulwark against war. Trade is the path of coexistence, cooperation. Peace feeds on prosperity.

“I was a professor of the jungle.” —General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam.

Mr Hayami nodded. “See those bamboo trees up there? he asked.

“Yes.”

“Next year … when you come … they will be one foot higher.”

I stared. I understood.

Phil Knight to students –“ I tell them about the untapped resources, natural and human, that the world has at its disposal, the abundant ways and means to solve its many crises. All we have to do, I tell the students, is work and study, study and work, hard as we can. Put another way: We must all be the professors of the jungle.”

On a plaque next to the entrance will go an inscription: Because mothers are our first coaches.

God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials or ordeals, might be inspired or comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on, It’s all the same drive. The same dream.

It would be nice to help them avoid the typical discouragements. I’d tell them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.

I’d like to warn the best of them, the iconoclasts, the innovators, the rebels, that they will always have a bull’s-eye on their backs. The better they get, the bigger the bull’s-eye. It’s not one man’s opinion; it’s a law of nature.

And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.

Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.

Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your heart.

(2 June 2016) Success is defined by your choices

Article for Times of India, 2 June 2016

By Dr. Premnath V (CSIR-NCL, Pune) (www.premnath.org )

This is the time of the year when school students of Class 10 and 12 would be awaiting or have received their results from the Board examinations. Many students and parents will experience bouts of anxiety, worry and fear of the future.  My message to students is to not worry but use this opportunity to explore your interests and chart the course for your future. My message to parents is to wholeheartedly support this exploration by their children and help them excel in whatever they choose to do.

If you are unsure about which career to pursue, do not despair but go and learn about diverse careers. Meet people, understand their professions, and see if it suits and excites you. It is only after the confusion of the dawn that the morning sun rises.  It is better to find your passions and then pursue it rather than follow the crowd and take up a career that you will regret later in your life.

If you have not done very well in your exams, do not despair but commit yourself to working hard for the future. Remember that people like Albert Einstein and Sachin Tendulkar did fabulously in life but did not do very well in school. Many of the most successful people in life were not necessarily the best students in school. They probably bloomed late or discovered their passions late in life or their school education did not nurture their interest.  I often tell my young friends that you must try and find that career for yourself, which will interest you enough that you will be willing to spend your nights and days pursuing it and excelling in it. If you do so, you will invariably succeed in life.

Yet another temptation to avoid is to compare yourself and your scores with others.  Also, do not get swayed by what is celebrated by the crowd and everybody around you.  Remember that most outstanding people you can think of pursued goals which most of the crowd around them did not even see as an opportunity. Look at your heroes in sports, arts, law, politics, invention, entrepreneurship etc — how many of them were Board exam toppers? Success in life is defined by the choices you make and the efforts you put in over decades; it is a mistake to consider your board exam results as all determining.

Why do we work?

While you are planning your future and career, you may wish to think about what motivates you to work or what will motivate you to work.

Why do people work? Here are some which I have been thinking about.

  1. (Survival motivation) They work for making a living, to provide for their family’s needs and wants, etc
  2. (Enjoyment motivation) They work to keep themselves busy, entertained, occupied, to stimulate their minds, to learn etc
  3. (Fulfilment motivation) They work for self fulfilment, find a greater purpose in life, give meaning to their life, satisfaction etc
  4. (Achievement motivation) They work to satisfy their ego/ aspiration for power, prove something to themselves and others, peer recognition, social/ economic status etc

Survival motivation:

  • This is the dominant driver in many people at the lowest level of the economic pyramid, people carrying out laborious/ tedious/ mundane/ risky tasks.
  • In many of our families, we might find that there were older generations which struggled through their life with the survival motivation being the key driving force throughout their lives.

Enjoyment motivation:

  • This is seen often in the case of spouses of well to do families (with considerable financial security) where one family member prefers to explore work as a source of keeping one self busy.
  • This is also seen in many retired people.

Fulfilment motivation:

  • This is often seen in the case of people seeking to do something useful for society with their lives. Often seen in people pursing non-profit organisations and social causes.
  • This is the key driver often when one finds a person highly successful in their professional field quitting and pursuing a larger and socially more important cause.

Achievement motivation:

  • Ex: a sportsman striving to be the fastest man on earth.
  • Ex: a scientists wishing to be the most decorated scientist in his/her field. The motivation to stand above other fellow scientists.
  • Ex: A desire to challenge oneself and prove that it is possible

Note:

  • There is nothing right or wrong in any of these motivations.
  • To each his own. Each person may value each aspect differently and be driven by each motivation in different proportions and combinations.
  • You might also notice that succeeding in one motivation and failing completely in another may also lead to a lot of disappointment in life.
  • An ideal job or career may be one that provides the employee an opportunity to “feed”  each of the above motivations to the right extent and proportion as desired by the employee.
  • Of course, the great HR challenge for organisations is a) to hire employees whose motivation are aligned with what the organisation can provide and b) to find ways to help employees continuously “feed” their motivations.

Personally, I find my fulfilment motivation very dominant in me.

Tips for writing a Statement of Purpose (SOP)

If you are applying for further studies in universities, you will most probably be required to write up a “Statement of Purpose” (SOP).

Some people find writing a SOP a pain. I found it very interesting because it helped me think through my plans and refine it as I wrote the SOP. It helped me think through what I liked to do and what I did not. It helped me build a working plan (note: working plans are subject to change but good enough to bet your resources for the moment) for action. It also felt good to communicate my aspirations to somebody. So, my first suggestion is that start developing an SOP by thinking in the right spirit.

The best SOPs are those that are honest and sincere, and reflect quite a lot of prior soul searching, exploration, research etc by the writer so as to get to a decent “working plan” headed in the right direction.

SOPs are documents where you have to state what course of action you wish to pursue and why you wish to pursue that certain course of action. While there is no particular formula to writing SOPs and I do not like formulaic SOPs, typically, the story line goes as follows:

  • Here is my plan for the distant future (for example, be an industrial researcher and inventor who develops healthcare products) — perhaps why you are passionate about that particular future.
  • Here is what I have done so far to prepare for that distant future (for example, an undergraduate education in engineering and biomedicine, and internships with health care companies, and clinical immersion at hospitals, etc etc)
  • Here is what I need to do in the near future (probably, attend a study program or seek a certain qualification) so as to be ready or be propelled towards my longer term goals (for ex: a PhD program in biomedical engineering)
  • The study program in XYZ college in PQR city is my best bet towards those goals and fits perfectly in my working plan for my career.

Clearly, writing this storyline is easiest and most credible when:

  • It is true and honest
  • you have done all the soul searching for it
  • you have done your research on the program and institution you wish to join

Some dos and donts:

  • Use simple, short sentences and simple language. (The SOP is not meant to test your vocabulary or your command of english literature or your knowledge of quotations) Avoid flowery language.
  • Make sure the SOP reflects your true level of maturity. (Do not ask somebody else/ senior/relative to write it for you. It will invariably not reflect your maturity levels and is clearly a dishonest beginning to a career.  By the way, it is easy to spot SOPs that have been written by somebody else —- one can make out from the quality of writing, the maturity of thoughts etc)
  • It is okay if you do not have all the answers or your plans are unclear. Build a working plan to the best of your abilities. It is also okay if you are going to use the opportunity of the program to explore options and finalise your plans.
  • Do not use templates. Customise each SOP using the research you have done on the program and institution. Everybody including the institutions like to see themselves as special and having been specially chosen by the candidate. If sufficient research was done in choosing the right program and institution, then it can help your SOP convey your specific reasons for preferring the given program and institution without making artificial and superficial statements.
  • Provide a copy of your SOP to your referees. If they get a chance they may be able to back up some aspects of the SOP and thus strengthen your case.

 

Does poor academic performance in school/college matter to my prospects?

The answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

If you performed poorly in school/college, it could send the following messages:

  • The person may not be hard working — perhaps a little casual
  • The person is not interested in the subject matter
  • The person lacks maturity and is irresponsible
  • The subject of study is not the person’s strength and the person does not understand the subject matter
  • The person does not think it is important to excel in school performance metrics
  • Or there was some event that distracted the person from focusing on studies

All of the above assumptions can hurt your prospects. So in that sense, poor academic performance can hurt your prospects — often short term prospects.

But that said, poor academic performance is not a good indicator of future prospects in a long enough time frame and clearly is unimportant. I often note with interest that many people who were considered poor students in school/ college go on to achieve excellence in a field of their interest and leave classmates who are academic stars far behind in life. For example, a young man may achieve excellence in sports and national honours despite doing poorly in academics at school as a child while his classmate who used to top class exams could be doing a boring job with limited growth prospects. For example, some of the weak students at school who were forced to chose arts for 11th and 12th instead of science may become excellent lawyers, judges, artists, writers etc while the science topper may be in a low profile job (albeit intellectually stimulating job) with limited opportunities to excel and shine. So over a long enough period of time, your school and college performance hardly matters if you do not allow them to matter.

So, if you have done poorly in academics at school or college, do not loose heart. You can do very well in life provided:

  • You find your passion in life and put all your energies into it
  • Identify your strengths and learn to leverage it
  • Make wise choices and do not follow the crowd (especially not the so called academic toppers)
  • Pursue excellence in whatever you are doing

You can remind yourself of the many people who have excelled despite poor academic performance — for ex, Albert Einstein, Sachin Tendulkar and many others.

 

Quotes from “I too had a dream”, by Verghese Kurien

I am excerpting some paragraphs from Dr Kurien’s biography. I encourage all to read about his amazing journey!!

Quotes from “I too had a dream”, by Verghese Kurien

“….choosing to lead one kind of life means putting aside the desire to pursue other options.”

“ I have often spoken of integrity as the most important of these values, realizing that integrity – and personal integrity, at that – is being honest to yourself. If you are always honest to yourself, it does not take much effort in always being honest with others.”

“Life is a privilege and to waste it would be wrong. In living this privileged “Life”, you must accept responsibility for yourself, always use your talents to the best of your ability and contribute somehow to the common good.”

 

“…failure is not about not succeeding. Rather it is about not putting in your bet effort and not contributing, however modestly, to the common good.”

 

“Most of us compare ourselves with someone we thin is happier – a relative, an acquaintance, or often, someone we barely know. But when we start looking closely we realize that what we saw were only images of perfection. And that will helps us understand and cherish what we have, rather than what we don’t have.”

 

“…. If we are brave enough to love, strong enough to rejoice in another’s happiness and wise enough to know that there is enough to go around for all, then we would have lived our lives to the fullest.”

 

“Working with Tribhuvandas and Kaira’s dairy farmers, I saw that when you work merely for your own profit, the pleasure is transitory; but if you work for others, there is a deeper sense of fulfillment and if things are handled well, the money, too, is more than adequate.”

 

“The greatest satisfaction and joy came from the priceless reward that comes when farmers whose lives depend on your efforts appreciate what is being done for them.”

 

“I began to see then that when the government enters business, the citizens of India get cheated. The greatest repercussion of the government entering business is that instead of safeguarding people from vested interests, they themselves become the vested interest.”

 

“..with adequate support, confrontation at the right time pays off.”

 

“Our belief at Anand has always been: let the people’s energies be unleashed.”

 

“What, therefore, is a government at its best? It is a government that “governs” least and instead finds ways to mobilise the energies of our people.”

 

“I opted to remain an employee of farmers all my life ….I did it because I realized I had a job which gave me the greatest pleasure, the greatest satisfaction. The idea of working for a large number of farmers translated itself into the concept of working for social good. I soon realized that money is not the only satisfaction that one can seek, that there are several other forms of satisfaction and all of these were available to me at Anand.”

 

“In every crisis, if you look carefully, you will spot an opportunity. My insistence on finding and seizing that opportunity has often been a source of annoyance for many of my collagues because it means that unlike most people, I never try to sidestep a crisis. Rather, the more monstrous the crisis, the more I am tempted to rush at it, grasp it by the horns and manoeuvre it until it gives me what I want!”

 

“The cooperative structure never encourages huge bureaucratic systems, for it knows that mammoth bureaucracies cannot be sensitive to the needs of people.”

 

“We need the bureaucrats to look after the interests of our people. The tricky part has always been: how do we educate the bureaucracy to be truly public servants – servants of the people – rather than the bosses most of them continue to be?”

 

On ICAR: “Then I would ensure that the researchers got not more than 5 per cent of their research funds from government coffers and the rest would come from the industry. This way they would be answerable to the industry and would also get rewards for their good work from the beneficiaries.”

 

“ Our bureaucracy today is too bloated and therefore it is burdensome.”

 

“Basic social and economic change needs to brought about gradually and the more carefully and thoughtfully it is effected, the more permanent it will be.”

 

“True democracy will emerge only when we allow the people to manage. And only when the people begin to take control of their lives will rural development gain momentum, when goods and services produced by rural areas will get better terms of trade than goods and services produced in the cities. Only when our farmers are involved in the processes of development will they be able to command their destiny. True development is the development of women and men.”

 

“The bottom line is that the government must govern, in every sector. The government need not nationalize banks but government must see that banks do not defraud people. The government need not run dairies but the government must ensure that the private sector puts out good quality milk at reasonable prices. That is governing. So, let the government get out from places where it should never have been in the first place.”

 

“I was just twenty-eight years old when Tribhuvandas made me the General Manager of Amul. It is an age when one believes nothing is impossible and one is ready to take on challenges. I believed in entrusting professionals with responsibilities at an early age, encouraging them to take initiatives, and correcting them when things went wrong, instead of penalizing or condemning them.”

 

“While integrity and loyalty are core values, there are other values, too, which are a prerequisite to achieve success in any field. For example, the leader has to set a personal example and make others understand in what ways “change” is going to be useful.”

 

“I believe that professionals working in our organisations must have clarity of though combined with a passionate pursuit of mastery of their subject. I have always emphasized that large endeavours are only the sum of many small parts and, therefore, we must keep in mind not just where we are going but how we are going to reach there successfully.”

 

I also believe that a person who does not have respect for time, and does not have a sense of timing, can achieve little.”

 

“What is the primary job of an efficient manager? In my book, it is to bring in and groom the right people on the team. Once this is done, the manager must then groom the successor most appropriate for the institution.”

 

“My attitude towards money has always been a very realistic an utilitarian one.  …. it is terrible to have too little money because you will not even have enough to eat and appease your hunger. But it is far, far worse to have too much money because then you will surely get corrupt.”

 

“I may be old-fashioned in my thinking but I have always believed that it is only when you get less than you are worth, that you can look for respect; if you paid much more than you are worth you will get no respect.”

 

“ It was only much later in life that I realized the tremendous benefits of this classic game of strategy. Chess has taught me the skill of how to always remain a few moves ahead of my opponents.”

 

“….my friend Vikram Sarabhai who often said to me: When you stand above the crowd, you must be ready to have stones thrown at you.”

 

“Pitroda is his address, that startled some of my colleagues, said, “In order to get things done you have to be a bit mad.” And then pointing towards me continued, “You have an example in front of you of a man who came with a dream – a bit mad – and today we are all reaping the benefits of his vision, his ideas. We don’t have to agree with him on everything or admire every little thing he does but the fact remains that what he has created is a dream that we all like to share. We need more and more people like him to create more dreams for our people.”

 

“ …each one of us has a responsibility, as a member of our nation’s privileged elite, to help bring about that stage. That responsibility is both to criticise and to correct. We must take responsibility for our nation’s future; we must hold ourselves accountable for that future. It means that we must act not only as advantaged individuals but as concerned members of our society. It means that in all that we do, we must be aware of its effect for he greater good.”

 

“ I have often claimed that I have had but one good idea in my life: that true development is the development of women and men.”

 

“… there is no doubt in my mind that as a people we stand second to none. Among us are people of great intellectual ability; people of the highest moral and ethical attainment; people of great tenacity and courage. The challenge is to put our talent, morality and courage to the right purposes, in the right direction.

 

Bureaucracies do not exist only in government. Tragically, most institutions, given time and allowed to grow big, tend to get bureaucratized. When employees begin to believe that the institution exists for them, rather than that they exist for  the purpose and ideals for which the institution was built, then clearly, that institution has mutated into a bureaucracy. The revolutionary in me would demand that such an institution be broken down unabashedly, and built again anew.”

 

How should you choose a place to pursue undergraduate studies?

Undergraduate studies is a time for opening your mind, exposing yourself to a variety of professional and scholarly pursuits, actively exploring your interests and potential careers while also building soft and hard skills for the future. It is not about becoming skilled labour (as is often bandied about by politicians and bureaucrats as the greatest need of the country under the umbrella of skills development).

With this goal, clearly Universities with a wide array of offerings which students can sample and explore are desirable. It is important that education is not limited to professional courses but also includes subjects (like history, philosophy, sports, etc) that will widen one’s thinking, help shape good judgement, learn to build organised activities etc. It is important that students have opportunities to debate and champion their causes.  It is important to have some flexibility for students to change their courses as they learn more about themselves.  It is important for students to meet potential role models and learn to excel.  It is important for students to be in the company of a peer group that inspires excellence.

So, within what is available to you, seek out the best places of learning and excellence rather than looking for job placement records of Universities!

No absolutes

One of the central tenets of Indian philosophy is that there are “no absolutes”. This is actually quite unique to India.

A good example that illustrates this is the position taken by Indian religions on right and wrong. Indian culture has taught right and wrongs to generations of Indians only through stories and epics, and most of these have shades of grey with no real black and white answers. Even gods had shades of grey. Ram and Krishna had their own failings. India probably never had an equivalent of the “ten commandments”. In fact, the Buddha in fact advocated good judgement but seemed to reluctantly prescribe some rules for simplicity. Even in Hinduism, my understanding is that most of the things which were perceived to be “transient” or changing with the times (like mores) were kept in the secondary texts and not part of the main spiritual texts.

To elaborate further and exemplify: One could say that to state a lie is wrong. That would be an “absolute”. But what if the lie will save a life (say for example, a lie that could save a jew from a nazi during world war two) ? Would/ should you lie? Perhaps you would.

These simple ideas have large implications for young people: 1) Read stories, epics, fables etc; read those with shades of grey; value the stories that your mom and grand mom told you; 2) be comfortable in shades of grey; do not seek absolutes; 3) learn to be tolerant of people with other very different ways of thinking; do not seek homogeneity; 4) do not mortify yourself and your conscience with notions of right and wrong, learn to exercise good judgement with ample consideration.

Fire in the belly

“Fire in the belly” — that is my latest fancy! I have been looking around to meet young people with “fire in the belly”.

Recently, I had a chance to listen to a talk by Dr Devi Shetty, the famed and visionary heart surgeon and social entrepreneur from Bangalore. In his talk he mentioned about his new initiative to catch young people from deprived backgrounds in West Bengal and train them to be medical doctors. His thesis — these young people will have the fire in the belly to work long hours as medical doctors in the service of the people (which he implicitly suggested that young people from well off backgrounds lack).

While I do not know if there is a rigorous correlation between “fire in the belly” and deprived backgrounds, I see his point and share his thinking. People who pursue goals with great vigour and obsession often need to be highly motivated and have a “hunger” for achievements. They cannot be seeking comfort and luxury. They cannot also have a philosophical view of “nothing really matters”. (Classic case being the case of ancient India which after years of global leadership, turned complacent in end of the first millennium to only be ravaged by “barbarians”  who did not hesitate burning our places of learning and centres of philosophy.) They need to be driven.

While one cannot say it is true for everybody, on average it does seem to hold that societies go from deprived and driven to complacent and content, and as this happens they go from growth to decline.  One can also see that refugees/ immigrants  seem to be excelling in most countries (while future generations of migrants do not seem to be very different from the natives). Even within India, one can see complacency setting in on well off states with the labour force not willing to take up certain jobs and the same jobs being taken up by migrants. One can see young people within one’s own families placing a greater premium on comfort, luxury and entertainment as India grows and becomes affluent.

It is in this context, that I would like to recommend to young people to be wary of complacency setting in. Seek the “fire in the belly”. The only way to create the “fire in the belly”  is to set the most challenging goals for your self and seek role models who have “fire in their bellies” —- basically identify the Mount Everest you wish to climb and be “hungry” to climb that and seek the Edmund Hillary to inspire you.

The curse of versatility

This blog posting is an opinion piece for young friends who find themselves versatile and good at many things but often find that the world seems to favour those who are specialised narrowly. Say, you are good at studies, sports, music and organising teams but everybody seems to only talk about the geeky topper in your class or the dumb sports star in your class.

One of my strengths is versatility — and I have always enjoyed it. I like learning/ doing many different things and combining them creatively in my work. For example, I can combine understanding of science, technology, business, finance, law, and philosophy in my work and use it creatively in the practice of technology management and entrepreneurship. But I can tell you that it is hard to build on your versatility (except in roles where you are in the driving seat and building/shaping the organisation’s agenda).

Most large organisations and societies like specialists.  They like people who conform to the ideal of that organisation/ society. For example, I work for a research organisation and the ideal is of a conventional scientist pursuing his/her narrow area of specialty over a career of 30 years with a solitary focus on peer recognition. In such large organisations,  versatile people are mavericks. And often such organisations are puzzled on how to deal with these mavericks.

Leaders of such organisations often worry how to recognise and reward versatile people and pen up opportunities for them. I was once advised by one of my mentors that I run the risk of “falling between stools”. What he meant was that my organisation had a “scientist”  career track and an “administrator/manager” career track and it would be suicidal for me to try to do both. He had a point! But then should I have chosen one “stool”  to stand on or follow my heart?

Based on my experience, I have the following recommendation for versatile people — if you wish to follow your heart and continue enjoying/leveraging your versatility, then build your own organisations (or work in small organisations)!  You have to be leaders who set the agenda so as to thrive as versatile people. Or else chances are that you will have to sell your soul to the specialists and conformists, and end up as a mediocre specialist!

What is Chemical engineering?

What is Chemical engineering?

In my view, Chemical Engineering is all about an integrated/ holistic understanding and exploitation of underlying unifying principles in “unit ops” (or building blocks) in a variety of transformation processes in chemical, materials, biological (and others) systems leveraging physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and computational sciences (and others) to engineer/design/develop/ improve products, services and in general, solutions that deliver impact for society and the economy!

Key words:
  1. Understanding and exploitation
  2. Transformation processes (natural and man-made)
  3. “Unit ops” or building blocks
  4. Unifying principles, design, prediction
  5. Multidisciplinary (and hence the versatility of chemical engineering)
  6. Design, develop, improve, engineer, “synthesis”,  “Technology”
  7. Impact:  execution and delivery

Notes:

  • Academic training in India emphasises 1-4 above but often 5-7 are neglected.
  • Industry (such as chemical industry) often emphasises the “routine” (something very important for efficient operation of plans and companies but quite boring for those aspiring for creativity)
  • It is important to note that chemical engineering skills are useful and used across many industries besides the chemical industry.  Chemical engineers contribute immensely in other industries such as energy and fuels, environment, materials, water and food processing, biotechnology, biomedical devices and diagnostics etc etc.

My opinion:

  • Early decades of 1900s saw the rise of chemical engineering with unifying principles relating to chemical plants being derived and used for designing and optimizing plants. The later part of the 20th century saw chemical engineering principles being applied to a variety of new fields and industry sectors. The character of chemical engineering departments changed dramatically.
  • It is my belief that this Century will be one where chemical engineers will need to re-invent themselves as technology innovators — people who will leverage their wide training to put together creative solutions for problems and unmet needs of society, and then help take them all the way to the market/ deployment. They will thus emphasize points 5-7.

(Excerpts from talk by V. Premnath at Azeotropy,  IIT- Bombay, 10 March 2013)

What is science? What motivates scientists?

(My objective in this article is not to go into the philosophy of science but take a simplistic view for a lay audience)

What is science?

  • a method of systematic thinking, and creating new and improved understanding, a method of pursuing knowledge?
  • a body of systematically accumulated knowledge?
  • a community of people ?
  • all of the above?

Characteristics of scientific pursuits and scientists:

  • Curiosity to explore, understand and explain
  • Desire to add to the body of scientific knowledge
  • Accurate, truthful and unbiased descriptions, statement of facts; measured words
  • Continuously improving and changing theories and models.  All theories need to be testable.
  • No authority. Nothing is sacred
  • Enjoyment of the process of science, and not merely focusing on the end point
  • Desire to strengthen and enrich the community of scientists (teaching, research training, conferences etc)
  • “Immortality”  via far reaching contributions to human understanding