Cultivating Luck

A well-known saying is: Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them. I suspect that the latter type must be short-lived if not actually ephemeral – for if you do not have the inherent qualities that lead to greatness, whatever is ‘thrown’ upon you is bound to fall off after a while.

And of course if you are truly great you do not have to proclaim yourself: people sense it and acknowledge you overtly or covertly, although you may never be acclaimed – something which may in fact embarrass you. It is like commanding respect, which is always lasting when it is earned. If you are ‘respected’ because of a certain position you hold in a hierarchy, the moment the position goes the respect also vanishes: because that kind of ‘respect’ is not given by genuine people but by hangers-on.

I was re-reading a speech delivered by Azim Premji, founder-owner of the Indian giant IT firm WIPRO at the 83rd Annual Convocation of the University of Delhi, a kind of exercise (re-reading material) which I do from time to time to draw inspiration afresh and courage to face life’s daunting challenges. His speech consisted of nine lessons, and the first lesson reminded me of the saying about greatness because I thought it lent itself to paraphrasing, using ‘luck’ instead of greatness. Thus, ‘some people are born lucky, some cultivate luck, and some have luck thrust on them.’

Here is Premji’s first lesson in full, where the notion of cultivating luck is illustrated:

Lesson 1: Work for your victory

Vision without action is hallucination. Go ahead and dream of success but be prepared to slog to convert your dreams into reality. Success is not easy and luck only favours hard work. I wish there was some other way to become lucky. I remember the story of a farmer who had cultivated a bountiful crop on his land. It was conspicuous because it was surrounded by a relatively arid land. A passer by remarked to the farmer, “You must have been really lucky to have got this piece of land.” To which, the farmer replied, “Yes, my friend. But you should have seen the amount of work I had to do to cultivate the luck on my piece of land!”

The corollary to this is that you must work, and work hard, to get what you need and want. In this way, you will get what you deserve, and deserve what you get. You will not be a parasite on your fellows (countrymen, friends, colleagues, etc.,) and you will be appreciated at your just value instead of being artificially tagged, which will have the effect of inflating your ego until it is punctured!

I know the story of someone who had a stable job that earned him a good living. ‘Luck’ was thrust upon him in the form of a lottery jackpot. He gave up his job, bought a brand new limousine, started gambling and leading what he thought was the ‘good life’ with sticky friends. Not later than a couple of years later he was flat out, car sold, in heavy debt, abandoned by the fair-weather friends to fend for himself and try to mend his health which had by then succumbed to the excesses that he had subjected his flesh to.

That is what happens when something is thrust at you, on you that you do not know how to handle.

It helps to have great doses of humility, and Azim Premji from what I have read about him had it abundantly. He told the students: ‘I am sure you will realize that learning has not ended but it has just begun. In fact, learning never stops. The only thing that can stop learning is arrogance that can make some people feel that they know it all. That actually is the highest kind of ignorance because that closes all doors to learning. I personally find that each day has new lessons for me.’

Whether one learns for work or for leisure, learning is definitely always a pleasure – at least I have found it to be so. In fact the lessons of Azim Premji are so inspirational that I will reproduce the lot, though in much abridged form. So here goes:

Lesson 2: How you win is as important as what you win

Success has to be built on a strong foundation of Integrity. The highest form of integrity is a commitment to searching for and acting on the truth… truth in every thought, in every act. Integrity can be checked through simple means. Can you look at yourself squarely in the mirror without flinching after doing whatever you have done? If so, that action is fine.

Lesson 3: Trust yourself

Will you make mistakes in your life? The answer is, yes, you will. Even if you do that, it does not mean you will stop making another mistake ever in your life. You will probably stop trying. I cannot think of a greater mistake than that. It means you learn how to get up and get moving again. It means trusting yourself that you can do it. And even if you do lose after trying, do not lose the lesson.

Lesson 4: Be curious like cats

All the available knowledge in the world is accelerating at a phenomenal rate. Remaining on top of what you need to know will become one of the greatest challenges for you… keep learning new things. Curiosity has never killed the cat. In any case, it has nine lives!

Lesson 5: Learn to look around corners

While it is good to plan for the future, we must remember that there are many “game changers” in the environment that can totally alter the landscape. Do not let success in the present lull you into a false sense of security. Keep examining what you need to change before someone else does it.

Lesson 6: Learn to listen

Listening is one of the most important communication skills we need to be successful. Listening is the ability to be receptive. That means being open and empathetic. It also means respecting the other person enough to believe that he or she has something worthwhile to say. Learn to listen not only to what is said but what is left unsaid. Even the silence between words has its own story to tell.

Lesson 7: Surround yourself with better people than you

Always have people around you who are smarter than you. These people will not agree with everything you say. In fact they may challenge your ideas and make you uncomfortable. But in a crisis, these people will also give you new angles and ideas that you may never have thought of. When everyone agrees, it means most people are not thinking. Learn how to facilitate dissent so that what you get is a result of careful thought and examination. Teams with members who have differing views are most equipped to win.

Lesson 8: Apply your thoughts

Ideas are great. But unfortunately, they are not enough. Ultimately, we have to roll up our sleeves and get down to applying these ideas. The key to success is execution. We need to anticipate what we need to do and do them diligently. Strangely, it is that one little thing that we leave out that assumes extraordinary importance. One can never over execute.

Lesson 9: Remember, there is always a larger purpose

Finally, winning means helping others win. At Wipro Applying Thought in Schools and Azim Premji Foundation, we have identified Primary Education as a very critical factor for the success of our country. Our initiative now engages with over 2.5 million children. Many Wipro employees volunteer to help in this and our other social initiatives, because it gives them an intrinsic feeling of satisfaction. We live not for bread alone but for a larger purpose and meaning.

It is not only what we get from society that gives us satisfaction but also what we give to it.

He ended by wishing ‘each one of you a very successful and meaningful life ahead.’

I think that Lesson 7 is most appropriate for people who wield power, who tend to display arrogance based on ignorance.

Thank you, Azim Premji.


* Published in print edition on 16 August  2013

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