I shared my favorite Yoda quotes with you in part one of this essay.
Another favourite character, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), is one of my perennial sources of insights.
“Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”
Heroes are born when they accomplish the seemingly impossible. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is an unlikely and accidental hero. He cannot wield a sword like Aragorn, or shoot an arrow as skilfully as Legolas, or exercise the brute strength of Gimli wielding the battle axe. The path to Mount Doom is fraught with danger. Sauron’s army is everywhere hunting for the ring. Frodo doesn’t even know the way, and has to depend on Gollum, who is not beyond killing Frodo to possess the ring. And worst danger of all, the ring itself can consume Frodo, as it had consumed others. Such odds should plunge anyone into despair.
But, as Gandalf says, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not”. These words should give heart to anyone who feels they are facing insurmountable odds, let alone the challenges of startups and entrepreneurship (in which context I often find meaning to these words).
At first, Gandalf’s advice seemed counterintuitive, and quite the opposite of how we usually tend to think. Until I realised, it’s as much about psychology as it is about probabilities. As the probability of a positive event improves, we become overconfident, and complacent. That attitude leads to outcomes at times of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. The opposite is also true. As the probability gets lower, we start to despair, as if we know that failure is certain. Gandalf in effect says that we shouldn’t despair, because we don’t know that probability of an event is zero. Or as Nassim Nicholas Taleb has argued, Black Swan events do happen.
We might not recognize it, couched in the language of probability. But real life abounds to attest that improbable probabilities do happen. What is the probability that a poor boy, born into a Dalit family towards the end of 19th century, when social discrimination was worse, and equal access to education was denied, ends up writing the Constitution of the world’s largest democracy, India? Close to zero? Yet, we had BR Ambedkar doing just that at India’s dawn of Independence. What is the probability that a boy who sold tea in railway station becomes the prime minister of that country — where dynastic policy is rife, as described in Patrick French’s “India: A Portrait”, 29% of all Parliamentarians have dynastic background? In the last elections, India voted in Narendra Modi as its Prime Minister. What are the odds that a man, born to a Kenyan father at a time when the discriminatory Jim Crow laws were still in force in some parts of the country, becomes the President of the United States? Close to zero. In 2008, this impossible happened with Obama.
The world is full of such stories. Sometimes we just have to look at our own lives to see that little things set us on a trajectory we never imagined — like meeting a stranger on a holiday, or spotting an opportunity no one notices. Same applies even to the broader trajectory of life. When I was ten years of age, I don’t think I would have imagined the path my own life would take. We weren’t rich. I used to get a small monthly allowance. And I spent all of it buying second hand books. I travelled to faraway places and cultures, immersed in my books, vivid adventures playing out in my mind. I didn’t imagine myself in a corporate boardroom. Yet, I ended up founding and running my own company half way around the world in Silicon Valley. Now back in India as a venture capitalist, I help entrepreneurs realise their dreams and achieve things that many might dismiss as improbable. When I was 10, none of the adventures in my mind could have dreamt this probability.
Sure enough, entrepreneurs face tough times. It might seem as if everything is going wrong — failure might seem inevitable. We have to remember that we don’t know the end beyond doubt.
We have two choices. We can visualise success or we can visualise failure. If we visualise failure, it leads to despair, and we might end up not noticing the doors that are open. If we visualise success, it leads to confidence. And confidence can open new doors.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Philip Roth, an American writer, once said “At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.”
In The Lord of the Rings, we see Frodo getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, and his own limitations. There he was living in Bag End, fantasising about elves and folk tales of Middle Earth, comfortably ensconced in his arm chair sipping tea. Suddenly, with one situation leading to another, he finds the fate of Middle Earth in his hands. Gandalf’s advice is pragmatic, and action oriented.
A couple of years ago, I attended an INK event, India’s answer to TED talks. There, I had a chance to listen to Aisha Chaudhury.
Aisha was born with an immune deficiency disorder, and was told she might not survive for more than a year. She did. When she was 13 she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that scars the lungs, and impairs the ability to breathe. But none of that stopped Aisha from doing what she wanted to — give inspirational talks, and write a book. She passed away last year. She was 19. She did what she wanted to do with the time that was given to her.
The time given might be a life time, or just a short moment. It’s up to us to decide what to do at each moment given to us. I recently watched the movie‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, a brilliant adaptation of Robert Kanigel’s eponymous biography of mathematical genius S Ramanujan. Ramanujan, like Henri Poincaré and John Nash, was an intuitive mathematician. Often, he wrote down equations — from thin air, it seemed — for some of which proofs are still being worked out. Being intuitive, he also had a premonition of his own early death. I don’t know if Ramanujan ran through the quadrangles of Trinity College in Cambridge. But by doing so Dev Patel, who played the genius in the film, captured the intellectual urgency that Ramanujan must have felt in unravelling the magic of mathematics in the short lifetime given to him. And what a contribution he made!
We are empowered not when we feel rudderless, but when despite all the hopelessness, we decide to focus on doing what is within our power to do in the time given to us. It requires a certain sense of surrender to carry on. This, I call faith.
“Some believe it’s only great power that can hold evil in check, but that’s not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”
One of the insights that we get from study of any subject — be it science, politics, economics or history — is that small changes can often lead to big consequences. Chaos theory tells us that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, can cause a storm in another. The killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 directly led to the first World War. The simple act of Rosa Parks, not giving up her bus seat became a pivotal point in civil rights movement in America. In India, a thin, frail man, dressed only in a loin cloth, took on the most powerful empire of that day, Great Britain, with nothing more than commitment to truth and nonviolence as his sole weapons — he is Gandhi.
Take ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ Laxmibai. She is one personality from history who always held sway over my imagination. Jhansi was just another small kingdom, one of the thousands that were spread across the subcontinent. Yet, we remember Rani Laxmibai even today for her leadership and courage during the first war of Indian independence. When the British invoked the Doctrine of Lapse to annex her kingdom after the death of her husband, little did they realise that she would turn into such a big force, commandeering everyone’s imagination and inspiring many with her bravery and courage in the face of certain death.
But this idea, of apparently small causes leading to great consequences, is so counterintuitive and uncommon that the full force of it struck me only when I landed in the Silicon Valley in the Nineties. To build something in a garage — with no family connections, no inherited millions, perhaps not even traditional education — and literally change the world, is a concept that has propelled many ordinary folks to create companies of great impact.
I think Gandalf’s observation about importance of small deeds, can be applied to the power of any act in our daily lives having the possibility of creating seminal outcomes even if the circumstances are not so dire as facing evil and darkness.
“Courage is the best defense we have now.”
We live in such a time where it’s not only easy to capture data and analyse it threadbare, it’s also becoming increasingly popular. Everywhere there are talks about big data, analytics, data visualisation. Engineers and data scientists are trying to quantify things that never underwent such treatment before. Metaphors are turning into mathematics. Warren Buffett speaks about the castle and the moat. In the investment circles, you will see analysts quantifying each element of this metaphorical moat, and give you a number that gives a sense of its depth and width. But the best defense we all need to cultivate, cannot really be quantified. That defense is courage.
It’s this courage that comes to one’s aid when everything has failed. If we look at the survivors of any war, we will notice that they might have lost everything, their physical possessions, their friends and family, but they survive by one thing — courage. Courage can move mountains, as they say.
The Lord of the Rings is not always a serious book. There is humour in it, too. But, even in humour, I discovered, there is profoundness. At one point, Bilbo wishes Gandalf a good morning. Gandalf’s response: “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” Does it not highlight the importance — and perils — of communication. Words can be interpreted in many ways.
But the most unforgettable quote comes from Bilbo: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”. I think I understand what he means and then I wonder, what doeshe mean?
Lest you read too much into this article, I follow the edict to never offer unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise.