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3 Ever Relevant Lessons About Life and Success

Courtesy My Father

Of the 365 days in a year, I miss my father every day but one — the Father’s Day. Father’s Day is usually the day I bury my head in the proverbial sand, turn off social media and pretend the day doesn’t exist.

17 years and I am yet to get over the absence of my father.

This year, based on a combination of a factors that were not Father’s Day, I have been thinking about my father a lot, which given how much I think about him normally, is saying something. It has been a tumultuous year both personally and professionally, and I find myself reaching back into the memories of his words to find answers to the questions that life has been posing off late.

There was a wealth of wisdom he bequeathed to us in the relatively short span of time that life allowed him with us. It wasn’t a wisdom learned from the books, even though books had played a major role in the earning of it. It was a wisdom hard earned, forged in toughest and rawest of the experiences.

While it would be impossible to cover the length and breadth of the said wisdom in a single article (I’d probably write a book someday), here are three ideas that are radical, practical and about as real as you can get when it comes to the idea of success in a success-obsessed world.

Success = Authenticity + Individuality + Confidence

There was story my father used to narrate to us a lot. It was a story about his early days in the city when he was still a bright but rural bred youth who had studied in Hindi medium schools all his life, and was yet to catch up with the Anglophile bandwagon in the country.

The story was about a debate competition, a bilingual one thank God, where most participants were city slickers (my words, not his) who came in armed with crisp suits, crisper English and truckloads of disdain for everyone not ‘English’ enough. My father, with his Hindi background and less than fashionable clothes, was a soft target of their ridicule. Or could have been, if he had allowed it. Instead, he chose to get on that stage, armed with nothing more than an impromptu speech and oodles of confidence. His speech in fluent Hindi was flamboyant and animated and raw in a way most participants in the competition would not dare imagine in their wildest of sophisticated fantasies; in a way nobody had thought was possible to pull it off in that competition.

My father did it. Because he did not let anybody tell him whether or not he could.

He did not win that competition, because this is life not a movie. But he came a close third, which was a feat beyond anybody’s imagination.

The moral of the story was simple and straightforward. Success is a construct as much as the ingredients of the said success. You can whip up your own wild recipe, based on nothing more than your raw authenticity and strengths. But, first, you need believe in yourself and your ability to make it.

Confidence is a con that you pull on the rest of the world as much on your own self. There is no reason, or logic, or explanation behind it. It’s a trick where you learn to trick yourself into believing in something that may be unimaginable, even outrageous. But, so long as you can muster that confidence, pull off that con without flinching, without giving in to inevitable doubts of others as well as your own, you can make it. Because, originality always trumps fitting in, if only you can back it with confidence.

You Can’t Fail If You Don’t Try

AKA You have to learn to fall before you start taming horses

There is an Urdu couplet my father absolutely loved.

Girte Hain Shahsawaar Hi Maidaan-e-Jung Me

Wo Tifl Kya Girein Jo Ghutno Ke bal Chalein

Only the ones who dare to ride a horse in the battlefield risk a fall

Not those who choose to crawl the ground

Only if you ride a horse, can you fall. Falling is a symbol — a symbol that you had the courage to mount that horse in the first place. It is not an embarrassment, or a sign of your incompetence or lack of talent. It is merely a sign that you tried. And maybe you are not good enough. Yet.

The subtle caveat obviously is that you have to keep climbing back, no matter how many times you fall. The moment you give up, the moment you choose to start crawling instead of mounting the damn horse, is the moment you are done, the moment where you finally and decisively become ‘not good enough’.

I hope you would excuse the metaphor overload, but this was perhaps my father’s way to make sure a complex lesson in resilience was imprinted in my young mind with no risk of being forgotten. Even as grown ups, it makes sense for us to embrace this analogy and make a game out of our failures. Keep counting the horses, keep counting the falls until the point you can start counting the battles you have conquered. It is a progression, no shortcuts allowed. 

Falling is a prerequisite, as is failing. Because a probability of failure ensures a parallel (and successive) probability of success. And if you are not risking failure, you are not chancing success either.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

It was one of the harder to process lessons that started making sense much, much later in life to me. It was a phrase my father was fond of repeating — nothing succeeds like success. 

“If you were to become a top, powerful bureaucrat in the country”, he said, “you can climb up on any stage and shake a leg, and everyone around is going to praise you profusely for the performance, quality notwithstanding” 

The praise in this case is clearly not an outcome of the performance, but of the stature that you have earned, even though in a completely different capacity.

Crude as it may sound, it was one of the finest lessons that drive the idea of successful branding. You create a name, a brand, a seal of excellence in one domain, and then you can keep cashing it in as many domains as possible. You have to be good at one thing. Everything else follows.

Success breeds success. It is a harsh truth that nobody, not even in the big wide world of self help and success lessons, really wants to talk about. Not in such direct, somewhat crude terms. But it is also a truth that we must all accept in order to retain our sanity and courage while we fight through the tough times. Because the automatic flipside of this statement is that nothing fails like failure. And while it would be reductive to say failure breeds failure, at least in terms of perceptions and opinions, one has to accept that when you fail, everything about you will get questioned — your decisions, your talents, your choices, your entire existence is pushed under the shadow of your failure. It is not fair, but it is a fact. And the sooner we accept it, accept that the world will always remain obsessed with success and will never spare failures, the sooner we get over it and start moving beyond. 

It is the kind of acceptance that is rooted in graceful stoicism of how this world works and a resilient preparedness to deal with it. Ultimately, it is nothing more than a reminder of the subjectivity of perceptions about both success and failures.

Times change, so do opinions. It doesn’t matter what they think of you. All that matters is what you think of you. Because that is where the secret ingredient of your success remains hidden. The secret ingredient called confidence. At least my father believed so. And he was usually right.

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