Saturday, April 30, 2016

Learning is not a linear art form

Keynote Speech
Liberal Arts and Business
OP Jindal University Conference - April 2016

The arts is my business, certainly one of my businesses, so you could say that I am biased in my views about  Arts and Business. Or if you were generous, you could say I am well qualified to have a view - I appeal to your charity.
At Teamwork Arts, we celebrate the performing arts - theater, music, dance, and literature. I am, of course, recruited here to talk not of these arts, but of the Liberal Arts - a term I only heard of when the children of my family started looking at college studies. The Liberal Arts tradition, I then learned, is an ancient one, with its origins in Greece. This early democracy took decisions by the direct participation of its citizens - rather than by debate among their elected representatives. Free citizens - as distinguished from slaves - needed to equip themselves with the intellectual wherewithal to meaningfully participate in the conduct of public life; the essential tools of which were considered to be grammar, logic, and rhetoric. If  you took a look at Indian parliament today, you could justifiably say - “Send them all to Ancient Greece”.

Today the liberal arts are a lot more inclusive, encompassing everything from philosophy and psychology to music and art history. A rather more convenient way of looking at the Liberal Arts  is to define what kind of education it is not - professional, vocational, or technical. No doctors, or lawyers, or computer programmers, or MBAs. Nothing that is useful, in other words.

And hence, I guess, the title of this conference - Liberal Arts and Business. If you said IT and business, today, there’s really nothing to discuss, is there? I mean, everybody knows that IT IS business, from Big Basket to Amazon, IT whizkids fulfil all your daily needs. Even your evening ones, with dates via Tinder.  And MBAs? They are the guys who make the fancy presentations, which raise the cash, which pays the programmers, who design the software, that allows you to scan an entire dormitory-worth of possible dates, with the swipe of an index finger.
But art historians, or philosophers, of what use could they possibly be - I mean, to a business?
So let me start with my business - Teamwork. For our team, we look for people with passion, young people who are inspired by theater, and music,  and dance and literature; who are willing to travel the world to support art and artists, to showcase Indian culture to the world, and bring the world’s culture to India. That passion, that dedication to the arts, transcends college degrees and the boundaries of classrooms - and we don’t ever look at academic records. The members of our team love their jobs - if they didn’t, the pace and intensity would burn them out, without the fat salary packets of investment bankers or corporate lawyers.
Like my colleagues at Teamwork,  I was seduced by the performing arts at a young age, and by the time I joined college, I had spent hundreds of hours in rehearsal and on stage, behind mikes in recording studios and live on All India Radio.
The performing arts shaped my life, deepened it in ways I could then only dimly discern. Acting asked you to reflect on the other - other selves, other realities, other relationships. This deeply  internal exercise then used the physical tools of the body - voice, movement, and gesture - to  project this altered self to the audience. In life, attempts to alter one’s being, to shift to different realities, are hesitant, jerky, even false; best done over years, even decades of experimentation. But on stage, aided by the craft of the playwright, the guidance of a director, and the interplay with other performers, theater allows the actor to ‘be’ someone else. And at its best, most rewarding moments, you almost believe you are that someone else, immersed in a flow of give and take, a flow of deep reward that engages the audience and delights your co-performers.
BUT - this was make believe, and outside the performance space was reality - an economy crippled by a colonial legacy, socialism and unthinking state control. Survivors of the partition, my parents had crafted a decent life from their own work, and it was clear I had to do the same... So, I prepared myself for a career in the corporate world, by studying economics. In less than a decade, I had experienced two extremes of that world, first at the lowliest levels of a highly organised, regimented multi-national, Hindustan Lever; then as the leader of a chaotic, under-resourced enterprise struggling to define the rules of engagement in a business sector which hadn’t existed till then -  that of  packaged snack foods. Crax was born, the first entrant into this now crowded space; it was an early success, but even as I rushed to create management systems, planning and order around this young star, I felt a deep sense of loss of my other lives.
One day, I took a deep breath, smelled the fresh air outside of my office cabin, and my chauffeur driven car, and left. Left for the magic of theater, the joyous spontaneity of music, and for time in the elevating beauty and quiet of the mountains.
With those joys also came new-found poverty, and the lack of support systems - no chauffeur, no secretary, no coffee on call. But what the heck, I was free. And I was still young, and I found passion.
From that passion, I founded Teamwork - where our first projects were documentary films shot in tiny villages in remote corners of our nation. Another film-maker had just completed a film on child workers, and got talking to me about the world of street children. Thanks to her, I began exploring the harsh world of life on the street, and was seduced by the vulnerability of these children, and by the tragedy of  potential lost to unfortunate circumstance. In the heat of that grief, I pulled together a support group of relatives, friends and theater colleagues, and we cobbled together a program to work with and for those children. Funds were hard to come by, neighbourhoods were hostile, and the regulatory authorities harsh and exploitative. But every battle hardened our resolve, and - ever so slowly - our work gained traction. We joined hands with an old friend, a film maker called Mira Nair, and called ourselves Salaam Baalak Trust. Today the organisation employs 150 staff, houses 500 children, and works with 50,000 children a year. We dared to dream, and promised the children - “To sleep, perchance to dream” (Pablo Neruda).
Dreams are the foundation of a life of passion. And dreams cannot be taught - by IITs, or IIMs, or the best business schools in the world. They arise  - unpredictably - from interactions - with other people, with books and ideas, with music and theater and cinema.
Let me talk, then, of other dreamers - others who allowed the richness of wide ranging influences to shape their lives. Let me talk of the 1970s, when a counter-culture of love and universal peace rocked the staid world of white America. When students challenged the wars waged by their nation; battled the police on University campuses, and talked of oriental mysticism and Flower Power. When millions of young people experimented with new forms of music, clothing, and ways to get high. Many dropped out, and doped out. The center of this counter-culture was San Francisco. It cannot be just an accident that Silicon Valley, the center of the world’s economic creativity, lies just south of the site of its last major cultural revolution. Art shapes thought; acid dreams .gave way to  electronic dreams, and now  science shapes products more magical than any stoned 1970s playwright could have conjured up.
The engineers who give shape to these dreams are products of Stanford and Berkeley University, and Caltech, institutions that are the recruiting yard of Silicon Valley.. But what about those who dreamed the dreams?
Let me tell you of of one man of that time who dropped out of college and travelled to India to find a guru. Who met his first collaborator  through a mutual fascination with Bob Dylan and a collection of reel-to-reel tapes of bootleg Dylan recordings.
Who once told a reporter that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things” he did in his life.[9]
Whose biographer would call him: a "creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing."[2
I’m talking, of course, of Steve Jobs, founder of the world’s most valuable company.
His inspirations came from various sources - he took a calligraphy course once, and of it, said, "If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."
I’m sure we would have got there, eventually; but the fact is, this is the man who got us there first, with an exquisite sense of aesthetic, inspired by a random course in a dying, pretty useless craft.
Jobs practiced Zen Buddhism, and seriously considered living at a Japanese monastery. Those who didn’t share his counter-cultural roots, he said, would never understand his way of thinking….
The sources of Jobs’ inspiration were incredibly eclectic - he took courses in creative writing; and when given the opportunity to spend time at the Stanford Student’s Union, he didn’t join the electronics club; instead, he put on light shows with a friend for their avant-garde Jazz program. His formative years were not shaped by the narrow specialisation of a technical degree, or the rigour of an MBA. They are truly the fabric of a Liberal Arts education.

It is true, at the same time, that the modern world functions on specialisation; the vibrancy of a city comes from the tens of thousands of super-specialisations it can host. Medicine is a prime example - today, it’s not enough to be a dentist; you have to specialise in root canals, or prostheses such as dentures and implants, or peridontal diseases. If you work in finance, you need to hone your skills in one tiny part of this rapidly developing field - in analysing shares of consumer goods, say; or assessing the quality of home loans; or in structuring interest rate swaps - I’m not even sure what that means!! This kind of super-specialisation requires intense dedication and focus, often to the exclusion of all else.
There is a fundamental tension between this economic and intellectual need and the existential hunger of the soul to consume the world in all its beauty and variety  - it’s art and culture and cuisine and  architecture; its lakes and mountains and deserts; even its suffering, which we can all help to ameliorate.
This is a tension that each of us must resolve for ourselves - in our space, and our time.
But in the choices we make, I would urge anyone who cares to listen - Time is on your side. We live longer than the human race ever did before. And more healthily. Fauja Singh ran his last full marathon at 101. Zohra Sehgal could still move audiences at 102.
If you look after your body and nourish your soul, they will stand you in good stead for a long, long time. There is no race, no hurry to rush from School to University, to post-grad, to a well-paid job in a successful business. If you don’t stop to smell the roses, or sample the grass, you’d be justified in thinking - “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”
I have absolutely nothing against getting into business - I believe in business. I have founded a few, and invested in many. I believe that businesses have enormous force to shape the world. They are uniquely democratic institutions - if people don’t like what you produce, they shut you down, without violence or threat, just by sheer apathy. Businesses allow you to offer employment and opportunity to people of varied talents and desires, to create meaning from their lives, to support their families.
I love the world of business, its intellectual challenges, and the framework it provides for creativity and enterprise.
But above business, I place the business of life.
To quote another restless entrepreneur, Jack Ma:
“I always tell myself that we are born here not to work, but to enjoy life.”
Life, like nature, is not crafted from straight lines. It is shaped by arcs of discovery, by sparks of inspiration, by the sheer randomness of a dance  through the world.
A life well lived does not require us to decide at 20 - "This is what I am going to do for the rest of my life." I turn 60 this summer - and I still don’t know what I am going to do with my life. But I’ve had a blast finding out.
I close with the words of one of my dearest friends, one who has repeatedly inspired me. “When God made time,  He made plenty of it.”

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Mohit! It is no coincidence that the revolutionaries have had eclectic interests. Every institution has a tendency to ossify as the specialists become more and more focussed on their craft and ignore the world outside. It is left to the renaissance types-the one who have their hand in too many pies to realise that this particular pie has gone bad and propose a solution. Maybe Apple as a company still has those revolutionary spirits who can dream of self-driving cars and connect their technology to them so that they can go beyond being a iPhon-ey (pun completely unintended) company.

    The liberal arts give the people the perspective to be a revolutionary. One only has to see the ruined tomb of a a king who once used to call himself the “all-conquering emperor of the world” to really gain perspective and act in more meaningful ways. Also some of the liberal arts like literature, linguistics and philosophy make their students more aware of how they think- a kind of meta-brain which is at least as useful as the brain which we usually use especially when confronted with the ethical ambiguity that we often face. I think business schools should have at least a few courses in these subjects not least for utilitarian reasons. I used to interact with analysts of the top-tier investment banks and was quite surprised to note that quite a few had degrees in Classics and History. I can only guess why- maybe their liberal arts education gives them the ability to deal with the ethical ambiguity of being objective in their reports while not stepping on the toes of their investment banking brethren who are prospecting for business with the same company! Or maybe they could go beyond the numbers and look at the business more holistically.

    And give me the ability, any day, to see the beautiful and interconnected reality of this world than succeed in the drudgery of being, well, successful!