The Spirit of ‘only this week’

DURING one of my cubicle chats, I met with a MindTree team working on a software development project. After asking them a lot of questions, it was my turn to answer theirs. One question they asked me related to how my early life experiences have helped me handle what I do now. The truth is, from a sheer work-content point of view, there are few clear linkages. The work you do in your 20s and 30s and 40s can be so radically different! But looking back, I do realise that the early years of one’s life can have a deep impact in many ways. They go on to determine who one eventually becomes. Take, for example, learning the value of tenacity. It is a quality that is so critical to navigate the ups and downs of life and work. Tenacity, and not competence, often decides who succeeds and who does not. Sustained value creation is invariably led by tenacity. It is true at a personal level as much as it is at an organisation level. How does one learn it?

The cubicle conversation took me back in time to when I was just about 18. Having graduated and eager to be on my own, I had signed up for my first job as a lower division clerk at the state secretariat in Bhubaneswar. I met an unusual person there. In a government office where most people are grumpy, lazy and hardly work, he was an exception. He came before time, stayed late, was always busy and at the same time used to be the most cheerful person in the office. One day, I sensed he was somewhat withdrawn. I walked up to him and asked what the reason was. The man was startled and embarrassed. He tried to tell me nothing was wrong, but after a little cajoling he opened up. His wife was suffering from cancer. "But then I could always handle it. The problem is, she is admitted in a hospital in Cuttack, as we do not have a cancer hospital in Bhubaneswar. So, I have to commute everyday." Pause. "I could handle that as well, but for this one week – the two kids at home have their annual examination." Pause. "I could handle that one as well, except that my old mother has chosen this time to pay us a visit. But then, you cannot expect anything else from her; the poor thing has been mentally ill for many years now."

There was no call for sympathy. There were no complaints. There was no trace of bitterness or despondence. Just a list of things that made coping a little more difficult. Only this week. The next moment, he was back to his mountain-pushing self. As an 18-year-old, that lesson in tenacity was ingrained deep into me and has stayed ever since, even though today I am miles away from where that man was.

The very evening, after my meeting with the MindTree team, I was with another of our teams working on a time-sensitive project. It was past six when I landed up in their bay. When I arrived, I found 30-odd MindTree minds glued to their workstations. No one looked up. They were busy working on the next release – tonight would be another long night for them. I pulled the project manager aside, and we stood chatting in an adjoining room. After talking about the project and team members, I turned to a few personal questions. How far did he live from the workplace? How has he been coping with a rapidly growing team, a challenging customer, and the task of raising a family? Is there full-time help at home?

He replied: "No, there is no full-time help at home." And continued: "Normally, not having full-time help at home just hasn’t been a huge problem. Except these days, my mother is hospitalised with a rather serious ailment." Pause. "That also I can cope with." Pause. "Except that there is a 35-year-old sister at home who suffers from the Down syndrome." Pause. But as if in a moment of quick self-chastising, the project manager quickly changed tracks and pulled me back to all the exciting things about the project and the impending visit of our customer the very next week.

I was dumbfounded by the coincidence of the two conversations in the same day. We look for things outside that are often inside us.

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