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Life lessons from my grandma

A tribute to an inspiring woman, who overcame several hurdles to leave a deep and lasting impact on people.

Earlier this week, my 96-year old maternal grandmother died peacefully after a 5-year battle against dementia. She was a very inspiring woman, who overcame several hurdles to leave a deep and lasting impact on people around her. I have learned many things from her, and I wanted to pay a tribute to her by sharing this with others.

First, some background on my grandma though. She was born in India in an era where women had very few opportunities to use their talents. She was pulled out of school in second grade and made to marry my grandpa at the tender age of 8 (no that wasn’t a typo – this was an era when child marriage was common in India). She suffered multiple miscarriages and lost a couple of babies at or soon after birth (again, something that was the norm then, due to lack of healthcare facilities). She was undaunted by these challenges, and in fact seemed to draw strength from them. I describe some of these in the lessons below.

Lesson 1: Have less, give more.

Grandma was always content with what she had, and lived a life of ‘mild preferences’ (to use the words of culture guru, Larry Senn). She didn’t believe in accumulating things for herself. However, she was extremely generous when it came to others – giving time, money, and things to people in need. She had an uncanny knack of proactively landing up at her relatives’ homes and offering her services before they realized they needed help (handling a newborn or caring for the sick)!

Lesson 2: Convert challenges into opportunities.

Grandma was among the most resilient people I’ve come across, remaining calm and positive even in tough situations. I once asked her how she felt about getting married so young, expecting her to be a bit sore about the lost opportunities. Ever the optimist, she told me that it turned out to be a blessing, as she and my grandpa became good friends before they really became spouses, giving them a foundation for a very long and fulfilling marriage (66 years till my grandpa’s death did them apart).

Lesson 3: Stay curious.

Grandma had a natural and childlike curiosity to learn, which she nurtured even as she aged. Even though she was deprived of formal school education, she managed to teach herself English and Math. She would ask us about our jobs to enhance her understanding of the business world. She made it a point to read The Hindu (a popular English newspaper) end-to-end every day, to update herself on happenings around the world (while also honing her English). She also learned to play chess, and had some mean moves!

Lesson 4: Listen for emotions.

Grandma was a great listener, focusing on the spoken and the unspoken words. She realized that often people just wanted to be heard, and were not really looking for solutions (something that the business world is finally realizing!). She had this superpower of understanding emotions well but not becoming emotional herself, which I think would have made her a very successful counselor (or maybe even a hostage negotiator!)

Lesson 5: Connect through stories.

Grandma was a storyteller par excellence. I vividly remember many an evening when we lost track of time, regaled by her mythological stories. The stories, with vivid descriptions, invariably carried a moral, and reinforced the importance of values such as generosity and integrity. (She also subtly used our rapt attention as an opportunity to feed us more healthy food than we would otherwise have consumed!)

Thank you grandma for all these lessons and more. As I take stock of these, I realize that (perhaps ironically) you actually checked every box in the list of skills I think are necessary for anyone wanting to be future-proof.

PS: Wisdom on Con-sulting!

As I mentioned earlier, my grandma would always quiz us about our jobs. Early in my career, when I tried to explain what I did as a management consultant, I noticed her puzzled reaction and wasn’t sure if she had understood me. But I was aghast at her profound response – “So you essentially tell people who are much more experienced than you how to do their job better. What do you know that they don’t, and why should they pay for your advice?!” I was so glad my clients weren’t asking me this very valid question! The consulting industry has since evolved to more of a value and expertise-based model, almost as if in response to my gradma’s innocent question!

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