APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s 11th President and arguably one of the most cerebral Presidents to have ever taken that office, was born to a poor Tamil Muslim family in Rameshwaram, South India. His father was a boat owner of meagre means. Young Kalam sold newspapers to supplement his family’s income but that did not stop him from dreaming big. After a stellar career of four decades as a scientist that earned him the moniker of India’s ‘Missile Man’, Kalam eventually rose to the country’s top position in 2002, endearing himself to the masses as ‘People’s President’.
N Shiva Kumar was another young boy from a poor family who sold newspapers for a living. His sights were however set higher. With help from a kind stranger Krishna Vedavyasa who recognised the spark in him and funded his education, he eventually managed to complete his engineering in computer science, cracked the highly competitive Common Admission Test (CAT) and went on to complete his management degree from India’s top-rung management institute IIM, Kolkata. The former newspaper boy then landed his first job as Deputy Country Manager in Sri Lanka for a German e-commerce company with a six-figure pay package.
Another icon of corporate India, Mr. Azim Premji, was surely not from humble origins. His father owned Western Indian Vegetable Products Ltd, a small company that manufactured cooking oil and washing soap. After his father’s untimely demise, 21-year old Azim Premji returned from his engineering course at Stanford to take over reins of the company. In next four decades, he turned around the fortunes of the company under the banner of Wipro. Today, he has a net worth in excess of $16 billion and is the second richest Indian.
Closer home, in 1984, there was a young lad from a middle class family who got obsessed with the idea of space voyage after watching a few grainy videos of IAF fighter pilot Rakesh Sharma, India’s first man in space. His family knew nothing about the armed forces, let alone space voyage. However, he dug deeper and realized that becoming a test pilot was an essential step towards being selected for future space programs. His fiery passion drew him to find out all the details and burn midnight oil till he eventually managed to join the Navy, going on to become a test pilot in 2002. India never sent another man into space after 1984. Somewhere down the line, that spark was lost but I am glad I reached the base of the mountain before it did. Today, I am proud to be included in the elite group of testers in India that includes the venerable Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (Retd).
There are plenty of examples like these. Everybody loves to berate the underdog till they make it big.
In contrast, don’t we find a large majority of children and adults today who continue to ‘drift’ with the tide, mindlessly pursuing degrees and qualifications when they are unable to clearly state where their true passion lies? Sample this conversation I recently had with a young student near Mithibhai College – a busy educational hub near Juhu, Mumbai.
“Hi. What degree are you pursuing here?”
“I am doing my BBA.”
“Oh, that must be interesting! What do you plan to do after that? Look for work?”
“Well…I don’t know. Do a masters maybe. Not decided yet.”
“Are you excited about the course and the career that awaits after that?”
“Well…yes and no. College is fun, but I don’t know what I’ll do after that”
“Is this your passion – this BBA thing? Have you chosen some specific stream like finance, HR, etc.?”
“No. I love photography.”
“Oh, so do you see photography and this college degree coming together to shape a career in future?”
“I don’t know…I am not sure my parents will approve of that”
“Well, why don’t you just carry a camera with you? Keep shooting, experiment with your talent and keep getting better…?”
“I don’t know. I do sometimes, but I don’t have a great camera. It’s expensive…have budgets and all…sorry uncle, I really need to go..bye!”
You can have a thousand conversations and yet the same story plays out almost always. And it doesn’t stop with students. Working professionals, small entrepreneurs, artists, sportspersons…the list goes on. Most of us are ambling through life without any real sense of purpose.
When was the last time you sat down and thought deeply about where your true passion lies? What is that one thing, that one dream, that won’t let you sleep? When did you, if ever, get consumed by an idea so much it wouldn’t let you rest?
All of us at some stage in life must have had a fleeting experience of this ‘fire in the belly’. But almost always, we douse it with the wet blanket of practicality, reality or peer pressure. Sometimes our parents or spouses help us douse it. After all, it is far easier to maintain status quo and continue down the beaten path, dulled into following a drill that works.
Sometimes you need to take a deep dive into this realm and set absurdly difficult targets to ignite this fire. Or somebody needs to kick your ass down that road – like Mahavir Singh Phogat did with his daughters Geeta & Babita who eventually went on to win Commonwealth Medals for India in wrestling. All too often, we set the bar too low and feel happy we could scale it.
Wictionary describes ‘fire in the belly’ as ‘the emotional stamina and vigour, passion, or inner drive to achieve something, to take action, etc.’
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of your mind, this fire exists. Maybe you need to take two steps back from the humdrum of daily existence and ask yourself what purpose will propel you into the next orbit. Then fan that flame. In yourself. And in those around you. See where it gets you. You will be surprised what you are capable of. Don’t ever let the world tell you it is farfetched or impractical.
English singer-songwriter and former Beatle John Lennon’s foster parent and aunt, Mimi Smith, once famously told him “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”. How wrong she was.
A plaque outside the Indian Navy’s Diving School – cradle for navy’s tough frogmen – captures it all:
“Lift Yourself. By Yourself. You are your greatest enemy. You are your greatest friend.”
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.