Lessons from Yoda and Gandalf – Part 1

I first discovered JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings when I was 20. I found it fascinating. For me, it was more than just a fantasy novel. It was an allegory, a metaphor for life itself. I have read the book many times since. This is the kind of book where you read a few pages, then pause to reflect. So varied are the hidden meanings, it’s like a treasure, and each time I find a message that enriches my understanding of life.

If there is another work that has held me in equal sway, and gave me substantial emotional and intellectual return for every minute I spent on it, it is the Star Wars series. I found it equally rich in allegory, and just as addictive.

These two works are different in many ways. One is set in the past, in Middle Earth, and was not made into a movie until a few years ago. The other is set in the future, in a galaxy far far away, and began its journey as a film. Yet, they are similar in the way they portray the clash between the good and the evil. Perhaps that explains the reason for their enduring appeal.

In a way it’s like the Mahabharata, the epic that narrates the fight between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The tale continues to fascinate us, because we don’t see it as belonging to the past. They represent a war that continues to take place — both outside and within. Outside, we are waging a war against poverty, hunger, illiteracy, ideologies, violence (and unfortunately, often against each other). And within us, there is a constant battle going on between our good tendencies and bad, our desire to do the right thing, and the temptation to do what we know to be wrong. It’s thus not just a story with its drama, characters, intrigue and suspense; it’s also an extended case study, and a manual of ethics. In fact, one of the best books on ethics in recent times — The Difficulty of Being Good, by Gurucharan Das — explored ethical dilemmas and issues in the context of the Mahabharata.

Neither Lord of The Rings nor Star Wars is the Mahabharata (or for that matter, Ramayana or Illiad or Odyssey), but these modern day narratives can offer equally compelling lessons. In this short series of articles, I want to share my personal takeaways from two characters, Gandalf from Lord of The Rings and Yoda from Star Wars.

Yoda from Star Wars, and Gandalf from LOTR

On the surface, Gandalf and Yoda are very unlike each other. Gandalf the Wizard is tall, with a flowing beard and arresting eyes. On the other hand Yoda, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, is short and green, with long pointy ears and sad eyes. But they do have some things in common. They both bear a staff, a symbol of their position. And they both are wise, with an ability to distill their wisdom into cool and concise catchphrases.

I carry these phrases somewhere in the back of my mind, I have derived from them counsel in my life. Let me talk about three sayings by Yoda in this piece.

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

The temptation to sit on the fence is often hard to resist. We justify that by saying, ‘Perhaps, this is not the ideal time’, ‘I don’t have all the data I need’, or ‘I will have to sleep over it a few more nights’. We like staying in the shadows, in this apparent comfort zone, without realizing that “Let me try” is just another way of saying “I can’t commit” or “I am not convinced”.

This line by Yoda has thus forced me to think about the need to have conviction, and nudged me to become more committal. And over the years, it has helped me perform better — both as an entrepreneur earlier, and in my present work as a venture capitalist. Forcing yourself to “Do or do not” makes you think hard about your own priorities, sharpens your focus on the most important thing, and let you decide one way or another. Action follows. After all, it’s our actions that produce results, not our intention.

Being decisive also helps people around you — your team members, vendors, customers, partners. They are not kept in the dark. You are not forcing them to remain in limbo, nor are you sucking away their productive time with your ambiguity. So, I aim for clarity in my decisions and action. It’s either Yes or No. Be it about hiring someone, letting go of someone, a new investment — well actually, even when shopping for a new dress.

You are doing nobody a favor by wallowing in the land of uncertainty.

People will prefer a definitive ‘No’ to an ambiguous ‘Let me try’, because it lets them take their own next steps with greater clarity. We owe it to those who work with us. Mostly we owe it to ourselves, to maximize our own productivity. Believe me, it also reduces stress and anxiety to be able to make decisions clearly.

“Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”

In Indian philosophy, the metaphor of the serpent and the rope is used to throw light on the nature of reality. It also has a more earthy lesson to offer. In semi-darkness, a length of rope can look quite like a snake, and invoke an overreaction. However, when you turn the light on and know it to be just a rope, your pulse rate turns normal and you relax. So it is with the other sources of fear and anxiety. The very simple act of shining light on it, naming it, can take you a long way in dealing with it.

A Scene from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
A Scene from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

When the future — or for that matter the present — causes you to be afraid, try and name it. My own method is to write it down. I ask myself, why am I afraid? What is the worst that could happen to me? I did that when I decided to launch my own startup back in 1996. I did the same thing when I decided to move to the other side of the table to become a venture capitalist, by moving to India in 2006. The exercise works — the moment you have spelled out your worst fear and brought it out into the open, you are better prepared to face it. And it is then that we are free to act. We are no longer frozen or limited by our fears.

It’s one of the greatest lessons of leadership. In The Discovery of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru says Gandhi motivated India to act by first making them shed their fears. He did that by walking up to the oppressors with his head held high, secure in the knowledge that the worst that could happen to him was worth the cause he was fighting for.

That’s the way Yoda would have it. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen?”. Name your fear. A client might not like your idea, or a request might be denied. More often than not, the worst that could happen is that you are met with a ‘No’. And that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“You must unlearn what you have learned”

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who professed his doctrine of change famously said, “you don’t step into the same river twice”. Things change — over time and across geographies. Thus what worked in the US or China might not work at all in India. The market is different, the ecosystem is different, people are different. For that matter, what worked in India a few years ago might no longer work today.

I spent many years in the US before returning to India. It’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that it’s all essentially the same. On the surface, everything might seem that way. It’s the same industry. It’s the same AWS or Azure where the data resides. People carry the same iPhones or Samsungs, the same MacBooks and ThinkPads. The buzzwords are the same — unit economics, minimum viable products, pitch decks, valuations etc. Yet, it didn’t take long for me to learn that it’s a different script for India. We can’t cut-copy-paste from other markets.

Sometimes you have to unlearn what you have learned. There is a story about a person who went to a zen master, and requested him to teach him Zen. The master started pouring tea for his guest. Soon, the tea cup was full, but he continued to pour. It started overflowing. The person told him, please stop pouring, don’t you see the cup is full? The master smiled, and said, “You are like the cup. You are already too full. You have to empty your cup, before I can teach you Zen.”

So it is in the world of business. Business leaders and managers call such an approach by many names — ‘Zero-based budgeting’, where you don’t let the past dictate how to plan for the future; ‘Re-engineering’, where you fundamentally rethink and radically redesign the processes. As Yoda said, you must unlearn what you have learned to see the opportunity in a new light.

In the next part of this series, I shall share my favorite quotes from the wizard Gandalf. Until then, may the Force be with you!

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