‘Overachievers are their best friends and worst enemies’

Pankaj Mishra December 12, 2018 27 min

Subroto Bagchi, the Mindtree cofounder, author and now a government officer in Odisha, is among the finest thinkers I have met. Last year, I travelled to Bhubaneswar to record the ninth episode of Outliers Podcast.

Since then, I’ve received dozens of emails about the podcast. Many of you, dear listeners of Outliers Podcast, have been asking us to make the full transcript available. So here we are.

Bagchi’s six life lessons are invaluable insights about finding answers to questions related to work and life. Thanks to Kanika Berry*, as always, with the Outliers transcripts.

Pankaj: Welcome to Outliers. It’s a podcast about Outliers and I am so happy to have Subroto Bagchi with us today who is an Outlier himself and, more importantly, over years as I have seen, he has helped create other outliers. No matter what walk of life, I meet so many people, Subroto, a lot of them look up to the stuff, they read your books, they listen to your speeches and they get inspired…

So, thanks for joining us, Subroto.

Subroto: Thanks, Pankaj. It’s always such a pleasure to converse with you and this is not the first time we are speaking to each other. It’s an occasion that I am also looking forward to.

Pankaj: Great. First of all, thanks for having me here, Subroto. I have always passed Bhubaneswar looking at it from the train window, I never had an opportunity to jump off the train and you gave me this opportunity today, so thank you. Thank you for the hospitality and some wonderful pakoras.

Subroto: Thank you. You know, I am also very fascinated with the very thought that you and I are meeting in a place like Bhubaneswar because we have seen each other grow up in Bengaluru. You know, I left Bhubaneswar in 1976 and have come back in 2016, so I came back after 40 years.

Pankaj: Wow.

Subroto: And, so that’s interesting.

Pankaj: It is interesting. I thought we would capture some life lessons from you today, Subroto, and the idea is, of course, you are turning 60 in May so six lessons would be a good way to capture all that but more importantly I believe there is a lot to learn from lives like yours. I won’t get into details why and again as a storyteller when I go out, meet people from different walks of life, there is a lot they could learn, I believe, and that’s why I thought I will have this conversation. So, let’s capture your life across six lessons if I may ask for that and try and offer something to the listeners of this podcast.

Subroto: So, it’s absolutely an honour. The first lesson that is very dear to me is, the fact that we shouldn’t fret about where we are going. Way too many spend way too much time worrying about where their jobs are going, where their future is going, life is going and all that stuff. I see there is a lot of similarity between how a river starts its journey and how it ends its journey at the confluence where it meets the ocean. I am fascinated with rivers. Invariably, this thought actually occurred to me during a trip to Talakaveri in Mysore or rather near Mysore. I’d just joined Wipro, I was new to Karnataka and this group going to Talakaveri where Kaveri originates. So I’d actually gone there thinking I will see some of those massive, expansive thing and there I find that it is actually a small little pond. At the point of origin, every river is a trichome and at that point as it erupts whether you are talking about the Kaveri or the Gangotri or Ganga or you are talking about Amazon. Amazon actually begins from the crevice, high up in the mountains; it’s literally a trickle and then what happens at that point in time, the only control the trickle has is on one fact – move. Move, the trickle moves, takes the next step, that’s all.

Pankaj: That’s simple.

Subroto: That’s all. That’s all there is to it. And then what happens is, as it goes along, another completely unknown entity joins the journey. So, just as you would know, Amazon is actually the coming together of two rivers. It is the Amazon and then it is the black Amazon and at that point when a complete stranger joins them, the river doesn’t reject that. The river does not look for familiarity, river doesn’t ask for assurances and takes the other tributary along and together they become more expansive. And then they flow out. As they flow, suddenly there is a huge mountain in front of the river. The river doesn’t agonize with the fact that’s suddenly there is a mountain in front of you, it doesn’t fight the mountain, it just skirts the mountain and flows on.

We spend way too much time fighting adversity. Life is not always about fighting adversity. And fighting adversity is over romanticised, just don’t waste time with it, just skirt around it and move on. And, then the river moves on singing its own song, beautiful and certainly the road ends and when the road ends, it’s a gorge, it’s a fall, actually, it’s a fall, nobody wants to fall. Between a river and falls, it is not a tragic event. The river falls in such a spectacularly beautiful way that the whole world comes to see a waterfall.

Pankaj: Wow.

Subroto: And people just stand there and they stand mesmerized and they say, ‘Oh my god, what a beautiful sight!’ And by the way, you will never ever see anywhere in the world, a river suddenly losing way, falling in a deep gorge, actually bitching, moaning, whining, it roars. So when you fall, imagine you roar. So people say roar of a waterfall. So then you come to the conclusion where the river is at the confluence. So what starts as a trichome, we look at where the Ganges meets the Indian Ocean, it’s a mind-blowing thing. So any river, the Kaveri, the Ganges, the Amazon, where it meets the ocean, the ocean actually gives way.

Pankaj: Wow.

Subroto: Water pushes the tide. The ocean becomes the colour of the river. The point I am trying to make is that you have to trust the fact that life will take care, you have to actually trust that good things will happen or things will happen, doesn’t matter, good, bag, ugly, fall, mountain. And you need to appreciate the fact that my job is to just take that next step, just go the one step forward that the river goes at one time.

So my first life lesson is we need to emulate the river because life is a journey and every life is a river.

Pankaj: Very, very well said. I mean, I never thought about rivers, like this, like life’s journey. Fascinating. What’s the next one, Subroto?

Subroto: The (second lesson), Pankaj, is, you know, I am fascinated and blessed. I am fascinated with the fact that I am all the time surrounded by overachievers. I noticed overachievers from the time that I was three. So I saw overachievers in the family and then as I went to school and college, work life, entrepreneur and now that now where I am today with the government, part of the government, every morning I meet overachievers and then I ask myself, ‘What are the lessons that I could take from these people?’ Not all lessons are good by the way. The most fundamental difference between ordinariness and the capacity to achieve, this is the least known thing called “power to receive”. When you talk about power, it’s a very interesting construct. We think that the power to give is very important, right!

Pankaj: Yes.

Subroto: I have something very huge to tell. I have something which is very significant. Godmen know all the truth, they have the power, politicians have the power, great thinkers have the power, great philanthropists have power but in the world, it is a power to receive which is the bigger determinant of success, not the power to give.

Pankaj: Can you illustrate that?

Subroto: So, you know, the same parents raise five kids and parents usually are impartial. You know, there are favourites within the five but truth be told, in most households, all the five kids get the same nutrients, they give the same lessons, they are raised pretty much the same way. One becomes a great human being, the other becomes selfish, one becomes very hard working and rich, the other becomes a lazy guy. So what happens? And this is the story of every family.

At the start point, all the siblings, we talk about right to this and right to that. So, right to parental resources, emotions, material support, right to parents’ lessons remains the same. Your mom didn’t teach you different stuff than what she taught the sibling that you have. She didn’t serve a different breakfast to you as what she fed the other kid. But why is it that five kids become five different people? So it is not what your mom gave, it is what you decided to receive. So great people, you know are partly blessed with the power to receive and partly they cultivate it.
Now I keep telling leaders that, let’s imagine that the world has come to an end and there is a more definitive endgame than Trump and it’s all ground zero, nothing exists and we are to fend for ourselves and we all have to beg and between you and me, I will be the better beggar because I will beg so well because I have cultivated the power to receive.

So, people who will make a difference in life would have instilled in them the power to receive and I go back to what I learnt during my days in Wipro. Azim Premji sent me to Japan to learn about Total Quality Management and one of the TQM gurus’ there told me, you know Japanese are very fond of the mountain as a metaphor, yes everything. So, I say, imagine that mountain is a proud, glorious, bold thing but however much it may rain on top of a mountaintop, it cannot hold a drop of water. What will hold the drop of water? It’s a lake, it’s a valley. So, you have to make the mind a valley and the valley has the power to receive, the mountaintop with all its pride and masculinity doesn’t have power to receive, so it will not hold water. What good are you if you can’t hold water? Because water is life. So all of us must always build on the power to receive.

The three-year-old, the two-year-old, no, the six-month-old has sometimes higher power to receive than a 40-year-old. So, you know, the mirror neurons are active from the age that you are maybe three months or four months old. You mimic your mother, what is that? She smiles at you and you smile back, she says something, you don’t even understand what she is saying but you gurgle back and that’s how your vocabulary is kicking in. So you have a far more honed sense and the power to receive as a baby than you are as a CEO. So, you know, if we want to do something impactful in life, substantive in life, we have to continuously work on part to receive and that requires humility that requires the mind to be the mind of the valley not the mind of the mountain.

Pankaj: That’s very well said again. Very, very well said. I will let you sip your glass of water before we get on to the third one.

Subroto: Very thoughtful. Thank you.

So, talking about life lessons, I think the third important life lesson for me has been that, life is a constant negotiation. The other name of life is negotiation. So, if you are not constantly negotiating, you are not making progress.

Pankaj: How do you say that?

Subroto: So, you know many of us are all the time you know, getting upset, exasperated and blaming you know, everything around us because ‘if only’… ‘If only I had that’, ‘if only I did this’, ‘if only the world understood me better’. This is not the job of life, world, your neighbour, your spouse, you know, everybody is in a constant state of negotiating with you, starting with life itself.

Now, Arthur Clarke wrote a book where he quoted this man called J.D. Bernal. A man called J.D. Bernal who wrote a book called The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. He wrote this in 1929 and what he said in that, there are two futures: the future of desire and the future of fate. So, it is future of desire and future of fate and man’s reason has never learnt to separate them. What happens is you have a future of desire and life says now you know, you wanted to be let’s say an IAS officer. Life said, ‘No.’ You know, you are about to go for your written examinations and you had typhoid. So, you can’t be an IAS officer. So, what did you do? You did this, did that and then finally you ended up as a journalist or you ended up as a software engineer and the rest of your life you are bemoaning that and you think that you basically got a raw deal. Now, this is just a metaphor, so you need to actually use this template for 20 other possible tests.

So, in life, you wanted something out of it and life actually gives you a whack and delivered something else. What is it that act – that act is an act of negotiation. You wanted a future of desire and you are now handed a future of fate. What do you do? So, the question is, if I know that actually… we are, me and life are at a negotiating table. So, I said, ‘Ok life, you gave me this card, in return I will do this provided you do that.’ You can actually negotiate with life. The moment you do that, the moment you say, ‘Ok, the future of fate. Now can I convert that future of fate into future of desire?’ What desire can I build on that fate? So I had a future of desire and that future never happened, so be it. Now, you give me a future of fate but it’s not a fate with a capital F. Life is fooling with you, you know, life is playing with you. So, now, I need to negotiate with life. Life, wife, boss, whatever it is and can I within that create a future of desire, all over again? So, I think it is very important to recognize that it is a negotiation, you can’t moan the fact that things today morning didn’t go the way you wanted it. Your customers’ sprang a surprise at you. You wrote an agreement, the agreement looked like it is written in stone and then the customer comes back and says, ‘No fundamentals have changed from prison power and now jobs must come back to the US and I need to insource.’ You can’t then say, ‘So this is the beginning of the end.’ You need to be constantly at the negotiation table and say that something good is going to come out of it. It changes. It changes your mindset. You suddenly are filled with positive energy and you are no longer playing from a position of disadvantage.

Pankaj: I think this also goes back to the first lesson that you talked about in terms of how a river negotiates, like they say, a curve.

Subroto: Yes. That’s a beautiful point you made. Actually, in life, no wisdom is standalone, everything is interconnected. Everything, all lessons are interconnected. Life is actually continuous as system theories will tell you, it’s actually in a state of harmony. It gives you the feeling that it is in a state of flux. Of course, it is in a state of flux, of course, it is in a state of chaos but there is method in that madness. Everything is connected to everything.

Pankaj: Let’s move on to the fourth lesson.

Subroto: That’s about, you know, as I told you earlier, my whole life is blessed that I have worked with overachievers. I meet at least five overachievers every day. Everyday. Even in government by the way. So we will talk about that in the end. Now, my lesson, by looking at overachievers in the corporate sector, not for profit sector, among journalists, among writers, among actors, among sports people, is that overachievement is actually a very interesting thing in the sense that overachievers are their best friends and worst enemies. Actually, if you look at overachievers, they don’t need external stimulus to be somebody, it’s all with you. The downside of it is that they don’t need an external destroyer; the destruction is also genetically coded inside them.

Pankaj: I have some names.

Subroto: Yes, you have some names. We have names. I am sure that some of the names are common. Everywhere. So, you know, I metaphorically say that all you have to do is, imagine the double helix, the DNA, right? The double helix philosophically, if you look at it, it’s a picture of a spiral staircase. It’s a very, very balanced spiral staircase. It’s not asymmetric, it’s very symmetric and the left side is like the secret of your success and the right side is the secret of your destruction. You need to be very self-aware of that fact. Only when you are very self-aware and you recognise at every step that you can deflect your achievement and you can have the humility and the power to receive inputs, that’ll actually postpone your destruction because, ultimately, you know, if you have survived everything then death will take you, even if taxes spare you, Trump spares you, death will take you.

Pankaj: What if you are not a super achiever or over achiever? What if you are just a normal guy because that’s another thing?

Subroto: Very nicely put.

Pankaj: What happens then?

Subroto: So, here’s my referent to all our listeners, don’t be quick to look down upon normalcy. After studying closely, thousands of overachievers in my life, literally thousands, sometimes I step back and I basically think, do you have to be blessed to be exceptional or do you have to be blessed to be ordinary? This is particularly relevant in the Indian social context where we exaggerate the importance to achieve and overachieve. We eulogise, we put overachievement at a platform and we as a society, we blank out, you know the collateral damage of overachievement, both on the overachiever as well as on the system. So, sometimes, I feel, you don’t need to be blessed to be an overachiever; in many cases, it is a curse actually, going back to the double helix, if you don’t manage that very carefully. You need to be very blessed, yeah, at the close of your life, you need to be blessed to be ordinary and sometimes it is more important to be ordinary. You know, if your victory, for many of us the victory is by walking on dead bodies. Now, is that victory worth it? So, overachievement is an overrated thing but nonetheless stepping back, the lesson is the overachiever is her best friend and worst enemy.

Pankaj: Yes, very well said. Final two lessons. What’s the fourth one?

Subroto: Fifth one!

Pankaj: Fifth one. You are counting.

Subroto: So, the fifth one, Pankaj, is resilience and self-doubt.

Pankaj: How can these two co-exist?

Subroto: Oh my god!

Pankaj: I am sorry.

Subroto: Oh my god! You know, first, resilience is very critical. You need to recognise that life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Life is not about smartness, it’s about tenacity. You know like somebody famously said, that, ‘I am not necessarily the most intelligent guy, the most smart guy but I stay with the problem longer’. So when I look at most great people that I know, have come close to, I have seen from a distance, they are not necessarily the greatest people on earth but they stay with the problem longer. So, sometimes you can’t solve a problem but very smart, competent, capable guy will either give up, get frustrated, blame the system, kick the job, go away and the dumb guy in class will just sleep overnight and next morning is a different morning. It is important to be resilient in your profession, in your career, in your relationships. So, do you want to call off the friendship tonight, do you want to break the love affair tonight, do you want to break the marriage tonight or just want to sleep over it?

Pankaj: I just won’t follow your question on this and I had this conversation inside, I am a rookie founder, you know, among founders. You talked about the tenacity of staying with the problem. What if the problem is boring?

Subroto: Boring?

Pankaj: Boring. A lot of creative people, they kind of look at a problem and say it’s not worth solving and then they move on.

Subroto: Yup. So, here it is. I, all the time, all the time, I am fascinated with sunrises and sunsets because every sunrise is beautiful and every sunset is beautiful and every sunrise is unique and every sunset is unique. If you are a photographer, you will appreciate what I am talking about.

Pankaj: I am going there tomorrow.

Subroto: Yes, you are going to Konark tomorrow. So what is so interesting about the sun’s job? It’s the most boring job in the universe. You actually start in the East and you end in the West and you have a highly predictable trajectory. By mid-noon, you have to be over my head. Now, what if the sun complained and said, ‘It’s so routine, there’s no excitement. You know, what about today, I want to be innovative and instead of going from East to West, let me actually do a North-South gig.’ What do you think will happen to the universe? If that sounds very outlandish to you, so you are a 747 (the Boeing 747 is a jet airliner) or a Dreamliner pilot, so you’ll take off from Frankfurt at the appointed time wearing this appointed uniform, you will make the appointed radio calls, you cannot suddenly say, ‘I want to recite poetry today’, you have to stick to his standard operating procedure, every millisecond, from the time the flight took off from Frankfurt to the time the flight landed in Bangalore, you cannot deviate. Now, imagine you are 747 or a Dreamliner pilot, all your career you have to follow rules. Now, is that boring? Is that predictable? We need to actually reboot our concepts and ideas and, you know, particularly in the tech sector and particularly in our young days, we get bored too easily. Imagine you are a heart surgeon, Dr Devi Shetty, you are closing a cheese hole which is tiny holes in the heart of an infant, you know, six hours you have to be on your two legs. A heart surgeon doesn’t actually sit on a recliner and do heart surgery. There are no bean bags in the surgery rooms, just so you know. And you are a heart surgeon, you are a 747 pilot and you are the sun, you have to deliver predictability.

Pankaj: Very well said.

Subroto: And, in life and living is a predictability. Funny thing is that we expect the world to be predictable to us but we want to be unpredictable. What kind of a deal is that?

Now come back, the whole idea of resilience and talk about the issue of self-doubt particularly in the post 30s age… I must tell you two things. One is, you know, you very unkindly told the listeners that I am going to be 60 and I must tell you that in all my life, there hasn’t been a day that I didn’t have self-doubt. My mornings start with self-doubt, my evenings end with joy. And, I am not alone, there are greater people who have walked the path who have had self-doubt. Mother Teresa, from the time she was in her 50s, she had self-doubt for one full decade and a point came where she basically questioned the existence of god. That’s the big reason why her beatification took so long. She had this thing, ‘Who am I? What am I doing here? And if there is a god, why isn’t god talking to me?’ So if Mother Teresa can have self-doubt, who am I? So self-doubt is normal. Self-doubt is nothing to feel devastated about. Self-doubt is a starting point of humility, self-doubt is an instrument for deflection.

Pankaj: That’s assuring to know.

Subroto: That the burden of the universe is not on my shoulder. And you know, back to that overachievement conversation. That I need to be in the Olympic winning pedestal, I need to be on the first position all my life. No, you don’t need to be. Take that off your mind. The moment you give yourself to self-doubt, you are deflecting, you are easing, you are saying, ‘it’s ok’, you are saying, the moment you say that, ‘is this true, is this real?’ you begin to discount the unnecessary things, they are trappings, the eulogists, the false celebrations, the bouquets that really don’t mean anything and as you grow up in positions of leadership, there’ll be lots of people who will suck up to you all the time. You will know how to discount that. Without self-doubt, you will really take all that seriously.

Pankaj: You just defined my target audience for this podcast a lot.

Subroto: Here’s the last lesson: don’t’ demonise government.

Pankaj: Are you saying that because now you are with the government?

Subroto: You know, I was born in a government servant’s house, government servant’s quarter. My father never built a house and you know my father came to the State of Odisha coincidentally, just like that river. The river started in West Bengal with my grandfather, he was a doctor. The river flowed to Bihar, he spent all his life starting with the early parts in 1900s and he lived and died in Bihar; actually, today, it’s Jharkhand. My father migrated to Odisha. Bihar, Odisha, Bengal, all of them are pretty much the same place and my father came to this state in 1930s and my mother came as a bride to this place, young bride to this place. I was born here in 1957. I was born in a government house, two-room government house… house is the wrong thing, government quarter, two-room government quarter in a place called Patnagarh which is part of a district called Bolangir in Western Odisha and because I took the job of (chairman of) Odisha Skill Development Authority, I now can travel anywhere. You know, the first thing I did is, the first 30 days of my taking this assignment, I went to all 30 districts, by road. I travelled 7,700 kilometres, which is little more than length and breadth of India, because I was very selfish I wanted to see the reality of the ground. I didn’t want to learn about skill development by reading reports. I wanted to see what’s going on there and in the process, I went back to the house where I was born.

Pankaj: You did?

Subroto: Yes, it’s a two-room house, two-room government quarter, I keep saying house I don’t know why. Two-room government quarter… So, my father and the older four brothers must have waited in one room and my mother delivered me in the other room because in a place like Patnagarh, home delivery was normal because (there were) no hospitals there. There is no electricity, no running water and so no hospital, no running water, no electricity, mother gave birth there, I went there. And that quarter is actually just walls and some broken windows and there is no roof there and I stood there and imagined how my mother must have delivered me there and I cried, I cried like a baby. If there was no government, I wouldn’t be here and from then on, I actually grew up in government quarters. My father was a small-time government servant who went from place to place every 12-18 months, we’d move from one place to the other. So my father raised us, five brothers, on a government job, on a government salary. We grew up in government quarters.

It’s very easy to forget your roots where you came from. And then when I go to the interiors of the state and my state is no different from Jharkhand and Bihar and Maharashtra and Haryana and Rajasthan and Karnataka. Let me tell you, the moment you go 50 kilometres outside of a metro in India, the moment the sewage system stops and even today the drinking water doesn’t come from the tap; the electricity, maybe, yes; the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, maybe, yes; Pulse Polio, maybe, yes. But every state will look the same, 50 kilometres away from the metro. And then you realise, if the government wouldn’t have gone there, out of 1.3 billion people, 1.2 billion people would have been dead.

We come to the private sector, IT industry, this and that, nobody will go for the government cause. And educated people, literate people, just because you have a tag of success behind your shirt, you forget the importance, the contribution, the capacity of the government. We will not have bean bags in offices but even today, government will go and put two drops in the mouth of an infant. Even today, children get born, prenatal babies get born in talukas where the Gram Sevika didi will call the ANM nurse, midwife nurse, she will come running and tell you about the baby, cut the umbilical cord and the ANM nurse and the Gram Sevika didi is not on Microsoft’s payroll, Infosys payroll or Mindtree’s payroll. So government goes where nobody goes and when it comes to human life, sheer human life, even today despite all the things you can talk about government, it is government which is keeping 1.3 billion people intact. So, don’t demonise the government.

And when government moves, it moves like nobody else can. If the government takes one small decision, it impacts 1.3 billion people. So, a very important life lesson for me is: institutions have sanctity. You know, we think that the individual is important, we think individual creativity is important, we think individual contribution is important, so remove the government conversation for a moment, we talk about platforms, we talk about institutions, organisations and finally, of course, government, institutions are very important. So people like you and I have an institution-building responsibility.

Thank you, Pankaj.

Pankaj: And, really, thank you, Subroto, because I think because all these life lessons, like as you were talking, I was thinking and fascinating! Really actionable insights.


Subroto: You have this innate capability of extracting things from people.

Pankaj: You are kind.

Subroto: I have always, always admired that.

Pankaj: Thank you, Subroto, really great having you. Take care.

Subroto: Take care.

(*: Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over 8 years.)

Photographs: Subroto Bagchi’s blog


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