How to punch above your weight class

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 than 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 classPut 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 chairperson of the event. 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 them what the best part of their life was, 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.

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20 thoughts on “How to punch above your weight class”

  1. Enjoyed reading this ……… many parallels in my life here ….. but still figuring it out and methinks it’s just round the corner …….. perhaps !

  2. That was some serious introspection, Mukund! My thoughts are resonating like a tuning fork in full heat! 🙂

  3. Hi Mukund,

    I have read a few of your posts and have listened to a few of your talks. One of the things that you have been telling in this post and in one of the talks that I heard of yours is that you have been very average at most things you have done, but I do not believe an average person could have achieved the kind of things that you have achieved nor do I think that you really believe that you have been mostly average throughout your early part of your career.

  4. Initially my reaction was what? How could that be? But what an important story to share. Thank you for that. Sometimes the thing that holds us back is lack of perspective about what we have to offer. Maybe we hit expected numbers so to speak but it doesn’t feel like a fit. Either way, I think you nail the point which is we all discover our place in our own time. Hopefully we find enough support to get through that journey. It seems to me that is a great gift you are offering to young entrepreneurs and your children too.

  5. There’s something to be said about organization, discipline and hard work. You have all those in LARGE measure – more than anyone I know. And you have had it all your life. I know. You found your groove and I know you will teach your kids how to find theirs. That’s incredibly more valuable than any innate talent one can have. I am just happy that you will teach my kids too. Love you & HB! 🙂

  6. Mukund, Having known you for many of those years this level of introspection and candor is a thing of beauty to read.
    It seems to have surprised a lot of your admirers; I am one of them, but I am surprised because I have believed that this depth in your conviction is what makes you punch so well.
    You are an enigma and here’s wishing you continue to BE.

  7. Hi Mukund. Another extremely humble share. Thanks.

    Although everyone knows about the awesome success of BuzzGain, i would be grateful if at some point you decide to share if all this (a) actually helped you stay strong & committed through hundereds of rejections in the early BuzzGain days and (b) spaked a deadly need to prove you to yourself (and others in process)

  8. Hi Mukund; exception artical, I could connect to most of it incoduing toward the end where you were mentioing abount “They will find their groove at some point….” and “They too, will find their formula at a time that’s right for them…”. Though I was not a reguler to your blogs, today I was just checking your google signature and could not get what is this big comany name (bestengagingcommunities.com) mukund is associated with beyound MSFT?. Fartunately I landed up on this great artical as it was on top. Infact these are the some of the aspects(questions) I wanted to discuss with in our call today!!, got some anwers and for remaing, i’m calling you now. Thanks for this nice post and awsome story telling. 🙂

  9. Very candid and honest..got me thinking ….will discuss what I learnt from this when we meet….keep these coming!

  10. Fantastic article!

    The most I miss about school is a strong work ethic. I was one of those kids that studied a week (sometimes, a night) before the exams. And that has stuck with me, unfortunately, to this day. Hopefully, there is time to change.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Thank you for sharing personal experience about your achievemens at school with us! This is exactly what I always try to tell my students who are average or less than average!

  12. Very interesting post! Have a question around asking Questions.. something I’ve been trying to get the answer to: How does one ask the right questions? Is there any sort of guideline(s) around it, so that one doesn’t come across as stupid.

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