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To reach your potential, get out of your own way

Ravi Venkatesan
16th May 2015
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1985. I was 22 and a fresh graduate of IIT Bombay. India had yet to emerge and there were few exciting opportunities for ambitious young engineers; as a result, about 40 out of my class of 55 students migrated to the US for graduate studies.

I was one of them. It turned out to be a great decision. I got a wonderful education first at Purdue University and then at Harvard Business School. I went to work as a manufacturing engineer at Cummins Engine and, thanks to the amazing managers who were repeatedly willing to give me responsibilities I was not ready for, I rose rapidly through the ranks to become one of the youngest officers of the company.

yourstory-ravi-venkatesan

In 1996, I made a pivotal decision to return to India and contribute to rebuilding her economy. It led to the extraordinary opportunity of helping build Cummins India operations into a nearly billion dollar business that contributed 15 percent of global profits.

In 2003, I left the cosy cocoon of Cummins to join Microsoft and help build its India presence. The timing was brilliant as India’s economy was just taking off. By 2011, Microsoft India had grown to become the company’s largest geography outside the US and one of its fastest growing markets. With a great team in place, my job was done and I wandered off to do what I do today — a social entrepreneur, impact investor, mentor and author.

I often wonder why, I, an introverted kid from a modest family in a poor country and with no great abilities, was able to have such a wonderful career. I think hard work certainly played a role in this. That coupled with a fierce ambition to succeed, and dogged tenacity proved more important than brilliance. 

Another factor was the willingness to take on a big new challenge every few years and then work tenaciously to make it a success. For instance, when I was 22, I eschewed safer options and immigrated to the US with all of $20 in my pocket. I was 32 and doing really well in America when I decided to come back to India to do a job that no one else wanted; this was a really gutsy move. I was 40 when, against the advice of friends and family, I left a wonderful career at Cummins for the challenges of Microsoft and an industry I knew nothing about. At 48, I walked away from a corporate career to reinvent myself as a writer, social entrepreneur and impact investor. This willingness to repeatedly take risks has prevented my life from drifting into the shallows.

Third, I was fortunate to work with really great people and first-rate teams. One of my first managers counseled me that “those who work for you will have a greater impact on your career than those you work for.” It was extraordinarily good advice. Over the years, I gradually got better at hiring people who were outstanding at what I was not. Together we were great. This isn’t easy. Stars are often hard to manage and often resist collaboration. It’s so much easier to hire “B players” who simply do what they are told. But then you don’t get the spontaneous combustion and, worse, B- players usually hire C-players.

Finally, I was also singularly blessed to have exceptionally helpful mentors. At crucial moments these mentors opened the doors to new opportunities, gave me the tough feedback I needed, or the courage to make difficult decisions. For my career, it was the difference between taking a lift rather than an escalator.

As I look back at the past 30 years, there are also some enormously important things I have learned.

We are each our own worst enemy and the biggest obstacle to our own success. To reach our potential, we have to learn to get out of our own way. What this entails is a high degree of self-awareness and unfortunately smart, ambitious people are not often very self-aware.

It’s easy to become arrogant, to develop blind spots and fail to see our self-limiting behaviours. It is easy to give in to greed and temptation. I observed that extraordinarily successful people are often good at seeking brutally honest feedback and disciplined at managing their weaknesses. Conversely those who are defensive and shun feedback quickly hit a ceiling. So the ability to seek feedback and manage oneself becomes one of the most important determinants of how far one can go. This is something that I am still working on.

Professional success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness or fulfillment. This has been a huge realization. Like many people, I was programmed early in life to achieve. Studying hard, getting good grades brought admiration and parental approval. That was addictive and lead to a treadmill of achievement. Go to the best colleges, land a good job, climb the ladder, acquire material success and so on. Yet one day, inevitably we will all hit a big pothole — a big setback. Or an inner void that is impossible to fill despite a checklist of accomplishments. I couldn’t escape this either. It sparked a process of introspection.

I now wrestle with the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How will I measure my life? It has stimulated a gradual redefinition of life from one of achievement to one of contribution. A greater focus on character and the satisfaction of slowly becoming the kind of person I want to be. This state allows one's true calling to emerge, enabling a shift from a life of chasing success to a life of purpose and significance.

Luck or grace plays a big role. So much of all the good that has happened to me has little to do with my ability or effort. It is simply the result of “grace.” I was born with a healthy mind and body and into a stable family that valued education and was supportive of my dreams. I was fortunate to have several amazing teachers, mentors, managers, and friends who played a hugely influential role in my life. I repeatedly had career opportunities that I wasn’t ready or qualified for.

A lot of my success is due to fantastic teams that I was a part of. I never encountered a devastating setback that I couldn’t recover from. I can go on and on. It is humbling to look back and see how much of what the world sees, and I saw, as my success isn’t mine at all. It’s just Grace. And so it is for all of us. Keeping this in perspective at all times and remembering to stay humble, grateful and positive is a good way of ensuring good luck continues.

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