Woods for the trees…

No, I am not talking Tiger Woods. In fact, he would be the complete opposite of what this post is all about. I was once asked what is the one lesson I have learned from my parents or other role models that I apply in my daily life. I was hard pressed initially. It may seem my early life was completely devoid of morals and values. But, that’s not the point. Some of these values or lessons are so ingrained in you that they are second nature and you don’t consciously apply them reminding yourself where they came from. After a bit of soul searching, I found it.

 

My dad once narrated this anecdote from his school days. It was way back when I was in my teens that I can’t recollect what triggered this conversation. But, I would hazard a guess it had to do something with my grades! Anyway, the story goes that he was preparing for an exam in History (I think) that had a just a textbook full of (auto)biographies of historical luminaries from Gandhi to Galileo and Aristotle to Aurobindo as reading material.

 

As you would expect from any Indian student of those days (and depressingly, my days and even today), most of his peers realised this was an exam best mastered through rote learning. They deposited every single biography into their freshly formed brain cells. Ask anything about any of them, and you could get a verbatim dump onto as many pages as their individual handwriting lead them to fill. Now, I don’t know if my dad was just lazy (probably was) or indeed a genius (again, probably was) to see through it. But, he was more interested in what he could takeaway from each of them, not how old MLK Jr was exactly when he was shot.

 

As it turned out, the exam apparently took an unfavourable turn. Unfavourable, if you are a rote learner. The questions cut across the individual biographies, testing what patterns the students could extract from them. You cannot answer them by regurgitating an entire biography or all of them for that matter. You had to get to the bottom of each personality and imbibe the key lessons. As history – one that can never be verified – goes, this played right into my dad’s hands and he (claimed he) aced the exam.

 

Coming back to values and lessons from your role models… the point he was trying to stress to me was that I have to strive to understand and look for patterns or themes in whatever I do, not just settle for the obvious, even if that’s what I am told to do by my peers or teachers or anyone else. Putting it differently, never neglect the woods for the trees (finally, the link back to the title huh?).

 

In retrospect, this is one lesson that has stayed with me forever. Presented with any data or phenomenon, I instinctively look for a pattern or an underlying thesis – not least because patterns have a habit of repeating themselves. Every time I spend too much time in detail, I have to pull myself back to ground zero and understand the grand scheme behind what I am seeing or doing. I know this sounds like a stock interview answer. However, to this date, I get queasy if I don’t get the basic “funda” (as my fellow IITians would say) in any situation. If you are a fan of the book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, this is what Richard Rumelt calls “diagnosis”.

 

I can’t comment on whether this has served me for the good or not. I can only say that I wouldn’t be me without this instinct. Today marks twenty years since I lost the person who injected that instinct in me. And, twenty years hence, it still lives on…

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