Lessons from Yoda and Gandalf
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, and 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 good and 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, and 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.
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 distil 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.
1. “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 lets 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, and 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 favour 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.
2. “Named must your fear be, before banishing 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.
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 spelt 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.
3. “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, and 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 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.
Another favourite character, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), is one of my perennial sources of insight.
4. “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, 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 the 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 the 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 a 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 a 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. The 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 halfway 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 of 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.
5. “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 armchair 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 lifetime 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 life 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.
6. “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 the 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 the 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 a 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 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 the 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.
7. “Courage is the best defence we have now.”
We live in such a time where it’s not only easy to capture data and analyse it threadbare, but it’s also becoming increasingly popular. Everywhere there are talks about big data, analytics, and 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 defence we all need to cultivate, cannot really be quantified. That defence 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 does he 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.