I have been mostly an under performer. There’s a big difference between an under performer and an under achiever – the later does not give 100%, but the former gives “his best” and is still middling.
I have had several teachers and relatives (especially those overachieving uncles) who would always tell me “You can do more”. They did not tell me I could do better. They would say I could do more. It was as if they almost knew I was peaking and still in the middle of the pack.
Whether it was grades, swimming or violin, I was always the “middle of the pack or lower”. I remember many parent-teacher (PTA) meetings, where my mom would be asked “What does Mukund’s dad do?” and after my mom mentioned, that he was a superstar, the teacher would be largely incredulous, shake her head and say “Then why is he just not doing well in <fill in the blanks>”? Back in the ’80s it was okay to be politically incorrect I guess.
It did not help that I came from a family that had very high achievers. I wont call myself the black sheep, its just that I was a pig in a family of sheep.
Graduating from high school, I was at the “top” of the middle of the pack. Not for the lack of trying.
I realized I was not as smart as most other people in my class. Neither was I really willing to work way too hard to make up for the lack of smarts. Well, actually I thought I was working harder then most, but I was not able to get much better. I was just wanted to flow with the tide and go along for the ride.
Things at college did not change much. Sam Lomonaco, who taught us algorithms, once asked me if I really was from India, since most of the folks he knew from there were “super smart” and he wanted to know why I was not so.
My confidence, was not at a super high when I started working at Cisco. My hiring manager, Mark really liked me because I knew the one thing that most of the other folks in his team did not. They were largely “business analysts” and I was the only “developer”.
That’s when I started to hit my stride.
They usually say “In a pack of ducks a swan looks ugly“.
In business though it always helps to be the “one with a different perspective”. I was the only one in Mark’s team asking technical implementation questions when they wanted to build anything.
My questions were deemed “smart” or really “different” since none of the others had thought of those. I, on the other hand could not think of any other questions but those.
The first rule of punching above your weight class is to surround yourself with people who you complement.
Later you can surround yourself with people who complement you. Early on though, you have to complement them. That way you achieve two things – you avoid “group think” and you really give them a perspective that’s different.
In late 2001, I had a meeting where David Reichman, (who managed me for a few years) during which it was clear to him that I was “making sh*t up” to answer his questions. After 30 minutes of grilling he said “If you don’t know, then say you don’t know or just ask more questions, don’t give dumb answers”.
Boom! That was it. All I did after that was start asking questions, since I was neither smart enough to have answers or disciplined enough to work hard to get those answers. Better to have smart people give me the answers.
I learnt the second rule of punching above my weight class – Put yourself in a position where your biggest weakness becomes your largest strength.
A few years later, I started to be a little more disciplined. I actually learned to “think” much later in life. I guess I was a “late bloomer” in the field of “thinking”. My initial years were relegated to doing with the sense of “I have to do this because <fill in the blanks> – pass exams, get admission, whatever.
In 2006, I had a chance to make new friends at an event called Community 2.0. Francois was the one that the chair of the event and I had dinner with him and others including Chris Carfi, Aaron Strout, Nate Ritter, Chris Heuer and Lee Lefever. I am not sure who said it but when asked what was the best part of their life, even though they were not the super success they’d like to be, they said “That’s because I do things for myself”.
I then understood the rule three of punching above your weight class – do things for yourself instead of living to other’s expectations.
Steve Jobs has also said this in his famous commencement speech at Stanford.
I now blog so I can go back and read my posts, I play tennis so I can enjoy the outdoors, I meet entrepreneurs so I can learn. That’s possibly selfish, but I figured out that if I am happy that’s all that matters to my mind.
Those who know me well are surprised that it took me so long to “figure this out”. I guess they thought that coming from a smart family with a super achieving dad, social butterfly for a mom, an insanely talented sister and an naturally smart wife, I have it all and I had been blessed, so I should have figured these things out much earlier.
I seek consolation from the fact that every person takes their own time. Every person is really different and hits their stride at their own pace. They measure up to others expectations and perceptions much later in their life, if at all.
Now when I meet entrepreneurs who are from an excellent pedigree and background, I am more cognizant of the pressures and internal daemons they face. When I meet entrepreneurs who have on the flip side, not had the breaks and chance, I try to give them time.
Mostly though, I apply this learning to the expectations I have of my kids. They will find their groove at some point. During the journey though, I realize the sense of disappointment I have with them not punching even at their weight class. Those expectations are the ones that I have to work on the most.
They too, will find their formula at a time that’s right for them. Until then they are doing just fine – for themselves. Which is what matters the most.