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The Self-Made Man

Ever heard about the “Self-Made Man” (or Woman for that matter. People close to me tell me that I have loads of character flaws, but don’t want misogyny added to that list)? It’s a term that is supposed to represent a person who has battled alone against all odds and thrived. When you think seriously about it, it is just pure horseradish (just being sensible). Next time you encounter such a Self-Made person, please have a chat with him about how he made it by himself; answers are likely to be hilarious and eye-opening. This quote by Don Marquis also might be an insightful conversation starter.

When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: “Whose”?

Don Marquis

Humans have long had the illusion of being the masters of the universe. We have a highly evolved brain that helps us do things that are not possible for the other animals living with us on this planet. Our relative brain size (size of the brain relative to body size) is much larger than that of any other species. But when it comes to the independence (or helplessness) of a newly born, other species have far more advantages. Giraffe calves for example (and the newborn of many other mammals) stand up and start walking within an hour of their birth: We, on the other hand, come into this world crying and flailing in order to grab the attention of our parents. On a lighter note, it just may be our heavy brains weighing us down from immediately standing up. The point of this written mumbling is just to argue the fact that if we come into this world helpless, it would be really hypocritical of us to think that we are or can be Self-Made.

The myth of the self-made man has to be profoundly hypocritical: it is the self-serving demonstration that a lie is the truth.

Che Guevara

Dependence, Independence and then the TRUTH

So now that it is established that we are absolutely dependent on our parents for the first few years of our life, it begs consideration that they are our first and foremost teachers. This is the foundation on which most of us become the so-called “self-made”. Despite varied abilities, inclinations, circumstances and incomes, the intention of most (This is not absolute as my teacher used to say, “Biology is a science of exceptions”.) parents is noble and that is to make their children independent and to provide them with a better life than the ones they have. And so begins the long, arduous (but mostly fun and memorable) journey of school. This is where we come in contact with the aliens called teachers.

Parents: First and Finest Mentors Ever

School and teachers are where the dependent phase of our lives starts moving into the independent stage. We meet new people, learn to socialize, make friends, understand the boundaries of our culture (social behaviour so to say) and yes, gather the tools that would help us move to complete independence. The school takes roughly half of our daily useful time (I’m not saying by corollary that sleeping time isn’t useful ) and that itself makes the responsibility of teachers herculean. I’ve been fortunate to have been taken under the wings of a lot of good teachers. It’s a coincidence that most of the teachers that have influenced my paths and decisions in life were language teachers. My Hindi teacher in 5th grade, Tripathi Sir was my pen pal. In my later years, it was my English teacher Khera Ma’am who influenced my thought processes significantly. I remember that just before the 12th board exams, she had spoken to us and said, “This class is full of bright and wonderful students. I cannot say in all honesty who will top the class, but can definitely say that all of you will have a great future.” The world today is so competitive and for someone to be a voice of reason in such madness is just adorable. I owe my love for languages to them and many other wonderful teachers throughout the 12 years of school.

On a digressing note, teaching in India is one of the most thankless and penniless professions. It is simply unacceptable that someone who we trust our children’s future with is paid less than drivers in metros. No wonder teaching is not an occupational preference. During a village immersion program near Ranchi as part of my MBA, I was interacting with the school students and was surprised to learn that none of them wanted to be teachers when they grew up. Despite these conditions, however, so many wonderful people make it their life’s mission to teach the younger generation.

With the completion of our studies, we dive headlong into the professional (again I do not mean by corollary that professionalism exists in most companies, the word professional may just turn out to be a myth. ) world. We look for good companies, great positions and most of all excellent salaries. What most of us forget is that all these do not matter. To the naysayers, the average salary of teachers in private schools is 5-10k per month. It is possible to live on 10k also if the distinction between need and want is clear and to some, survival is a heavy burden even with a 100k salary. At home, the parents were there to guide us and at school, the teachers were there. Did you get the link?

Parents at home; Teachers at school; “?” at work? Yes, yes, I am talking about the next set of aliens; bosses, supervisors, managers and all similar designations. How many of us decide on a job offer based on our interactions with the people to who we will report in that company? Truth be told, that would not even be on the list of things to check before accepting offers! This is the most often heard quote in companies when talks of attrition happen;

People don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses.


Most of us by this stage when we begin earning have become independent. We do not think that we need anyone’s help or support in anything. That is like mistaking an oncoming train for the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The truth is that we still need others and this is the third stage of our development; interdependence. I have been lucky enough to have parents and teachers who talked about this stage. And so I have always looked at finding mentors rather than jobs/companies/salaries. Jobs and salaries have followed suit when I have been successful at finding mentors.


I use the term mentor and not the conventional term because there is a huge difference between them both. Managers are transactional while Mentors are relational. Managers think about your KPIs and Mentors worry about your future. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to find great Mentors. I have had the chance to work on great assignments, travel the world, have a balanced work-life and most importantly, I have been able to grow personally. In my first job, the CEO, Ramesh took me under his wing and this association lasted a decade. Ramesh made sure I had good assignments in order to grow my potential and did not let the vagaries of the industry disturb my growth. During the same time, I found Henrik, a socialist Dane who provided a leap to my career. I have him to thank for my executive education and the chance to see quite a lot of the world. The Denmark assignment under Henrik opened my eyes to the importance of a flat hierarchy and open communication which is often lacking in our firms. Thanks to these gentlemen, my parents and my wife, I had the possibility in 2012 to take a break from my routine career for a couple of years. Again luck favoured me and I ended up associating with Mr Gautam Talati; a 72-year-old capitalist with the heart of a socialist; dare say that these 2 years were the most invigorating years of my post-school life. I had absolute control over my time and was able to give a lot of it to my family (I am not saying by corollary that I had given little time to the family previously; promise, no more corollaries ).


Interdependence in my experience is far superior to independence and that is what I strive for and continually do. Therefore I am always amused at the talk about being self-made. One is always helped by a kind soul or a number of kind souls (they come in various packages; parents, teachers, mentors, family, friends, strangers or even imaginary. The world will never know if Arjuna was the better archer or Eklavya. Both had Drona as their mentor, real for Arjuna while imaginary for Eklavya.) Today on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, I dedicate this blog to all those kind souls who have helped me be where I am.