What Kind Of Professional Do You Need To Be To Succeed In The World Today?


Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune. – Jim Rohn

Saturday, 9.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If there’s one thing that matters to you it’s probably your career – whether you’re an employee or run your own business.

What you do to make a living is right up there on a list of the most important things in your life.

So, do you have a plan for how to build and develop your career?

When I look around one kind of approach is very “Rah Rah”.

This is the kind of talk where someone is on a ladder and they’re going to get to the very top – they believe and they want you to know that they’re unstoppable.

It’s the approach that’s drilled into us – maybe not literally but at least it’s the image that we have from popular culture – which after all is mostly American.

It’s sort of summed up in that quote from the football coach Vince Lombardi that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Now that’s all very well if you really believe that personal performance – grit, hard work, perseverance – is what leads to success.

But is that really the case?

I came across the book Globality: Competing with everyone from everywhere for everything by Harold L. Sirkin, James W. Hemerling and Arindam K. Bhattacharya and it makes for interesting, even eye opening reading.

Here’s the (recent) history of the world in a nutshell.

In the middle of the last millennium China and India were the world’s largest economies.

In the second half of the millennium Europe started to emerge – it had an industrial revolution and set the foundations for a modern world.

Then in the last century Europe blew itself to pieces and America found itself with a large population, abundant resources and no competition.

And it prospered.

And then the rest of the world started doing business again, picking itself up from the aftermath of war – hungry to learn and develop and grow and modernise.

And we’re here now – with developed economies and developing ones – more people living longer with better healthcare and more stuff and trying to figure out how we can all live on the planet without ruining it in the process.

And, of course, trying to find jobs – do something useful.

Now what you will know if you read this blog or are generally interested in the topic is that success is often down to the environment more than the people.

Success has moved from continent to continent over the last thousand years.

Is it possible that people were successful because they were lucky enough to be born on the particular continent that was taking its turn at being successful?

Now clearly we don’t know – and to some extent we don’t care.

We don’t care about all those other people – we care about us and where we are right now.

And it’s probably fair to say that you are competing with more people in more places than anyone before you.

Now, hidden in the book on page 101 is perhaps the secret of career success you need for this new world – a secret set out in the image that starts this post.

Established companies are led by what the book calls operators – people who keep things going and make small improvements.

But when it comes to challenging the status quo you need individuals who are builders – part entrepreneur and part team captain.

These people look for opportunities and take risks to go after them – personal risks.

And they are good at finding people to get on their team, developing and training them and inspiring them to act.

They’re also good at finding partners to work with.

This kind of individual doesn’t need a ladder – they’ll get wood and nails and make one themselves – or find something else like a rope or cannon to get them where they need to be.

That skill – being a builder – is not one you’ll find easily.

And because that’s the case perhaps developing it will help you get ahead in your own career.

After all waiting for someone to get out of your way so you can get ahead is a strategy from the past – a “dead man’s shoes” approach.

It doesn’t work so well in a world where we’re all living longer.

You need to make your own shoes.


Karthik Suresh

Are You Where You Should Be Mid-Career If You Are A Technologist?


Wednesday, 9.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The biggest mistake that you can make is to believe that you are working for somebody else. Job security is gone. The driving force of a career must come from the individual. Remember: Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career! – Earl Nightingale

Do you ever wonder if you are at the right place in your career – whether you’ve made the right choices along the way?

If you have, you’re not alone.

People have wondered about this for a while.

Which is why Living with technology: Issues at mid-career by Lotte Bailyn is an interesting read.

It caught my eye because it had the name Edgar H. Schein associated with it who, you will remember, is sort of a granddaddy of organisational development.

It’s a study of the MIT graduates from 1951, 1955 and 1959, over 2,000 in all with 22 women – so it’s skewed in all kinds of ways.

But here’s what matters if you have a technical background.

Unless you’re an academic or working in a firm that highly values engineering you’re unlikely to be in a good place if you’re still working an engineering role.

That is, if you’re an employee in a firm.

If you’re independent then things look better for you.

The image above shows how things tend to go for technical people working jobs by the time they reach mid career.

The first distinction is whether they are still technically focused or whether they have moved to more of a human focus – management in other words.

They might have also stopped trying to climb the career ladder and focus on other things that are important to them – like family.

The second distinction is whether they are high or low performers.

For high performers the route to follow if they want to stay technical is academia or professional engineering where their experience and doctorates will count for something.

In non-engineering companies they will not be recognised in the way they might want to be.

In those companies the high performers stop doing work and start ordering others around instead.

What matters is your place in the hierarchy – the higher up the better.

The corresponding roles for low performers is working as a technician or doing low level supervisory or line management roles.

That, then, is your unfortunate lot if you put work first.

If you don’t – then there are a couple more options.

If you’re good at what you do you could be kept on for your expertise – as a consultant to add value that isn’t in house.

If you’re less of a performer you might still be a useful pair of hands attached to a brain that can help out some of the time.

If you look at this image from an employees point of view it looks pretty depressing.

And actually, that’s the point.

As the quote that starts this post says you are in charge of your career – what you do at work is just a job.

If you aren’t recognised for what you do, or worse, you’re prevented from showing what you can do then you’re in trouble.

And need to spend some time thinking about what you could be doing.

The responsibility, however, also rests with employers.

The fact is that all the people in the various quadrants have something to contribute – but you have to be able to accommodate them.

And if you’re in a position where you make decisions about this kind of thing it’s worth remembering that the people this study is based on graduated sixty years ago.

This type of situation should be obsolete – but it’s still the norm.

Even that last quadrant – “part timers”, which to be clear is something that I put in and isn’t in the book, could be seen as dismissive and disrespectful of the work someone does.

I suppose if you were a good employer you would try and work with your people to help them figure out where they are, where they want to be and what would make them happy.

Or you could complain about how hard it is to get good staff.

Either way the world moves on.


Karthik Suresh

How To Spot When Things Are Going Wrong Before It’s Too Late


Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Who lets slip fortune, her shall never find: Occasion once past by, is bald behind. – Abraham Cowley, Pyramus and Thisbe, XV.

Every once in a while it’s worth spending some time thinking through all the ways in which you can fail.

That might not be seen as a very positive thing to do – surely you should be setting big, hairy, ambitious goals and focusing on daily rituals and looking up and ahead to where you want to be.

Except that if something trips you up it’s probably going to be down there on the ground.

So, when you’re ready to actually do something and start a journey towards that distant, better future, you ought to consider taking a look at what the road looks like.

These ideas are explored in Adrian J. Slywotzky’s book The upside: The 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs.

The book is about strategic risk – the kind of thing that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

Slywotzky argues that we’re familiar with certain kinds of risk – risks like those from natural hazards, financial risks from markets and operational risks to our organisations.

We’re less familiar with strategic ones – things that change the game we’re playing.

I’ve selected six ideas that seem useful from the ones he presents in the book – ideas that seem worth testing against your business or even your career.

And the way to test them is to ask questions. Questions like:

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

Lots of people come out with generic answers – we’re nice people, we are passionate about service.

But most people could say that, and most would find it hard to point to any evidence that they were unique.

What makes you unique might actually be that you are oddly passionate about – or you’ve worked for a long time and developed a certain skill.

Or it could come from combining two or three things that are themselves ordinary but together create something unique.

As Scott Adams did, combining cartooning, engineering and humour to create Dilbert.

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

If you’re an employee your manager is your customer, not your boss.

If you don’t know what they need then how will you serve them effectively?

Too many people wait to be told what to do rather than finding out what their customers need and creating it for them.

And businesses do that all the time – they start by being interested and then, over time, get complacent and forget about customers.

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

The fact is that things become obsolete all the time – especially things you know.

Who needs cassette tapes in a world of on-demand media?

If you aren’t learning all the time then you’re in trouble – and heading for the scrapheap.

One of my favourite questions is “When do you stop being a promising young person?”

Hopefully you’ll still be one well into your nineties.

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

Retail is being shaken up by Amazon and Ebay in no small way – it’s transforming the way transactional business is done and how we get goods we don’t need at prices we don’t mind paying.

When someone like Amazon enters everybody selling tat has to shut up shop because Amazon can sell more tat 24/7 than you can.

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

We’ve all got those people in the workplace – the ones who do something but we’re not quite sure what.

Some businesses are like that as well, they were once promising but now they’re fading – perhaps never to return.

Is your market going nowhere?

Are you stuck in a career or business that has no growth, no development?

You don’t make enough to invest and create new capability or get new customers – but you still have enough to get by and survive – but it’s a poor deal.

It’s no fun being trapped in a situation – one you can’t get out of.

The time to act… was some time back

The thing about risks like these is that once you can see what’s happening it’s often too late to do anything about it.

It’s going to take time to sort out the situation – dig yourself out of the hole you’ve unwittingly fallen into.

The solution, according to Slywotzky, is to get better at designing for risks – being aware of and preparing for risks – perhaps even being ready to profit from them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Often the risk that comes along and derails everything is not the one you’ve prepared for.

As they say, armies spend their time training to fight the last war.

What’s important, perhaps, is a healthy sense of paranoia.

Run scenarios where things go wrong – and think through how you would respond.

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

What Are We Losing By Trying To Be Adults?


Sunday, 8.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

How do I know what I think until I see what I say? – E.M. Forster

I assume, if you are reading this, that you are an adult, someone who has left behind childish things and is now seeking Wisdom or Riches or both.

If that is so, you probably have the education system to blame – the system that systematically strips us of creativity and abandon in order to prepare us for a world of order where we must find our place.

Although that’s probably not fair – I didn’t have that kind of education and neither, probably, did you.

When we look for the reasons why something is not working as it should we tend to swing towards to extremes.

We either look at individuals and try and assess whether they’re performing well or poorly.

Or we look at the system they’re working in and ask how well it’s supporting them in delivering what they should be doing.

In most cases it’s the system’s fault.

And, in most cases, we look to blame the people.

But it may be that, when it comes to teaching, the teacher you have does matter.

Teachers who believe their job is to “Teach” – that knowledge is something they force into a child have one way of approaching their lessons.

On the other hand, teachers who see their role as putting students in situations where they can discover what they need to know are the ones you remember as being truly great.

These sorts of thoughts are the ones Keith Johnstone, a director, teacher and writer on theatre craft, explores in his book Impro: Improvisation and the theatre.

He reminds us that children of all kinds are deeply interested in things they are interested in.

If you try and force a child to read something that she finds boring then how can you be surprised when she stops when the timer goes off?

On the other hand the same child, when engrossed in a task that interests and engages her, will spend hours working away at it.

In this witty TED talk Sir Ken Robinson argues that schools kill creativity because “Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

In the beginning, as children, we’re excited by almost everything – drawing, singing, running, playing – it’s like we’re a growing bush with leaves everywhere.

As we get older, the leaves drop off.

We stop singing, we put away the paints.

We focus on something that we can do that will bring in money.

And we end up older, bigger – with a set of skills.

But have we lost all the leaves in the process?

Johnstone writes that he “began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.”

What his book is about, then, is about getting that childlike state back again.

For example, right at the beginning, he suggests an exercise that you can do with your children.

Look around at things and call them by the wrong names.

Keep going, naming around 10 things.

We did this, the kids got quite excited, although they didn’t know why they were doing it.

The idea is that this exercise acts like sandpaper on your surface, getting rid of all the stuff that’s been collecting and stopping you seeing things like a child for the first time.

Suddenly one of the kids pointed out a towel holder on one wall – and I have to honestly say that in four years of walking in and out of this room, I have never seen that thing before.

It’s clearly been there all this time – I’ve just not noticed.

But I did – as a result of this exercise I saw the things around me clearly for the first time because we called them by the wrong names.

That’s a very different approach to taking an inventory – tabulating and checking what’s in there.

Much more exciting, lively, engaging, interesting.

Not a very grown up thing to do.

Johnstone’s book promises to deliver more interesting ideas – so I might come back to it in subsequent posts.

Until then.


Karthik Suresh

What Are The Characteristics Of Self Actualising People?


Thursday, 9.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but … life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves. – Gabriel García Márquez

A useful skill to develop is the ability to use models from one field to inform work in another.

Or, on the other hand, to see the similarities in models with different names but common characteristics.

For example, you are probably aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, where after you’ve figured out the basic needs for life, you can get on with the job of being what you must be.

I was browsing through a book by April O’Connell called Choice and change: The psychology of adjustment, growth and creativity, when I came across a bit on self-actualisation – the thing that used to be at the apex of Maslow’s pyramid.

In a nutshell, there are four psychological processes, O’Connell argues, that you need to master if you’re going to be what you must be.

The first has to do with what is in your head – how you go about inquiring, learning and discovering day after day.

We’re so busy these days being stimulated by media and overwhelmed by work that we rarely have time to learn – after we finish formal schooling anyway.

Most people know that learning should be a lifelong thing – but do you think that you’re learning and developing doing what you’re doing now?

The next process has to do with your emotional development – whether you are able to go past the basic feelings of fear and joy and experience more complex ones like empathy, compassion and kindness.

It appears that the older we get the more some of us close ourselves off to such experiences – maybe we see it as childish or unnecessary.

But it’s important to develop that ability, if only because we need to be open to new feelings in order to avoid closing ourselves off – getting stuck in rigid thinking and authoritarian ways until, eventually, the world moves on and we are made obsolete.

The third process has to do with our ability to direct what we do – to have some control over what we spend our time doing.

We are often never completely in control – but the more control we have the more likely it is that we will steer ourselves in a direction that works for us.

This process has to do with taking responsibility and taking action – not waiting for others to tell us what to do, give us what we deserve or push us in the direction we ought to be going.

The last process has to do with understanding and accepting that we live in a world with other people and that means we need to think about more than just what we can take for ourselves.

It has to do with the relationship we have with others and our environment – and what we do to live better together.

I thought it was worth thinking about this four part model for two reasons.

First, it is very simple and you can figure out pretty quickly how much of your time you’re spending developing yourself in each area.

I’d say I work on two of the four most of the time, and perhaps spend a tenth of my time on a third.

Self assessment: could do better.

The other is that this simple model of a self-actualised person has echoes of a systems thinking approach called the viable systems model, although the latter is expressed using language that is so much harder.

But why might it be useful to compare the two?

Well, if you’re trying to build any kind of system – a business, for example, what is it you need to do to make the business viable?

Well, you need to constantly learn how to do your business better.

You need to have empathy with your customer – understand what they need you to do.

You need to execute effectively – directing your resources to get things done.

And you need to have good relationships with suppliers and partners to support and grow your business.

The four characteristics of well-developed people seem to map well onto well-developed businesses.

And they seem worth trying to develop.


Karthik Suresh

When Do You Know Everything You Need To Know?


Friday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. – Socrates

There is a series on Amazon Prime called Librarians – where a group of misfits rush around averting magical disasters.

Every once in a while one of the characters drops a line that has echoes of a paper somewhere.


“Reality is just a shared narrative we agree to believe”


“Architecture is just art we live in”

Anyway, in one of these episodes they’re rushing around and stop to discuss trees.

We’ll get to that in a second, but if you’re actually watching the series – SPOILER alert…

Someone once said to me that there will come a time when you’re working for someone younger than yourself.

That’s a bit of a transition point – a point when all of a sudden someone younger knows more than you or is given more responsibility.

I had a chat the other day with a developer – around the same age as me, perhaps younger and I asked what sort of environment he worked in.

I got an answer filled with words I had seen but didn’t really recognise.

I’m sure Kubernetes was in there, and some new programming languages – maybe there was a whisper that sounded like Java.

And there are others, hot shot whizz kids, doing magic with database queries and programming that I didn’t know you could do.

Not yet anyway – I like to think that if I spent the time I could figure it out.

At the same time, there are new and different things to figure out.

Like people and groups and organisations.

The thing is that knowledge of one type will only take you so far.

Take textbooks, for example.

Some writers are brilliant at using simple words to explain complex concepts.

Sometimes you need complex words to explain complex concepts.

But how often do you need complex words to explain something simple?

Often, however, the purpose of writing seems to be to obscure rather than explain – to demonstrate how clever the author is rather than help the reader understand something new.

Which is why, after a while, when you’re finding the path you’re on a little too much the same the thing to do is find a different path, one less travelled.

And find it before the motorway being built alongside your own path ends in yours being reclaimed by weeds.

Doing that has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.

In the episode I refer to above, the baddie wants a branch from the tree of knowledge.

A huge, sprawling tree stands there, and the baddie breaks off a branch.

The hero destroys the tree and the branch rather than let it fall into the wrong hands and the baddie, thwarted, rails and departs.

The hero’s partner asks why he destroyed the tree of knowledge.

And the twist is that the huge tree wasn’t the tree of knowledge.

Knowledge is young, always growing.

It’s the small tree that is going to grow.

The young have an advantage – they are ready to learn because they don’t know stuff yet.

For those of us who are a little older, we may need to forget that we know so we can be ready to learn once again.


Karthik Suresh

If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?


Sunday, 8.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I will tell you the secret to getting rich on Wall Street. You try to be greedy when others are fearful. And you try to be fearful when others are greedy. – Warren Buffett

I started my career as a geek – and I’m still one, really.

In 1997 and 1998 I was installing Red Hat Linux and Slackware and discovering the command prompt.

I did programming work for money and even though I disliked how slow and clunky tools like Microsoft Excel were that’s what most people used and what they paid you to use for them.

But what I also learned as I spent more time working was that the ability to do stuff using a computer had much less commercial value than it might seem at first glance.

Don’t get me wrong – computers are incredibly useful and I couldn’t do any of the work I do without the tools and hardware we have today – especially the whole world of GNU/Linux.

But they’re useful mostly for programmers and the things that make my life easy are not things you could or would wish to sell.

For example, are you interested in how to use awk to create an electronic index card program?

It’s pretty easy – but the answer to that is probably not.

The fact is that you don’t find many programmers running things – especially not programmers that are still programming.

At the same time many people believe that being smart and being technologically capable qualifies you to have a view on the best way something should be done.

You’ve got a model – a complex one, maybe one based on artificial intelligence. The model says you should do X, so there you go – problem solved! Pay up.

But there’s a weakness here, a weakness set out in the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World edited by Jonathan Rosenhead.

This has the depressing line for those who believe that their technical capability is important.

For these people, Rosenhead writes, “…it offers a reliable downhill path to the role of minor technical auxiliary.”

In other words, if your skillset is based around being technically smart you might want to think about hiding that from other people.

And the reason for that is shown in the picture above.

There are two things to think about: what you want to happen and how you are going to make it happen.

That is, you need to think about the outcome and the method.

If you know what you want and you know the best method to get there then the task you have to do is a computation.

Do the analysis and work out the best option.

For example, if you need to route your truck through several cities and need to work out the best route – that’s a job for your technical expert.

The outcome is certain – the shortest route. The method is certain – a routing algorithm.

Now, let’s say your expert says that there are three different algorithms that produce slightly different results what do you do?

In this case the outcome is the same – the shortest route but the method to use is uncertain.

So, you go into bargaining mode and ask what the pros and cons are and what you can do to minimise the downside.

Eventually, however, you make the call on what to do.

Another situation you might face is when the method is clear but the outcome is uncertain.

For example, you might have a fund with money to invest but you’re looking at two different sectors – biotech and property.

One has stable returns but little prospect of explosive growth. The other has the potential for growth but you could take a big hit.

Computation is of limited use after a while in this situation. Decisions about markets often come down to a question of judgement – and it needs a person to make a call.

Yes, you can have algorithms that exploit differences for a while – but they will have to keep hunting because their own activity will start to close differences.

Which then takes us to the final quadrant – where the outcome is uncertain and the method is uncertain.

Should you study law or art or should you go to the local university or to one in a different country?

Should your company invest in marketing or in growth through acquisition? Should you start flexible working or rely on an office based staff?

Such questions have no clear answers – not ones you can get to on mathematical terms anyway.

Those situations need more than smarts – they need empathy, an ability to study situations and the skills to come up with a variety of solutions and decide which one to go with.

And they also need a big helping of luck.

The fact is that as you climb higher in organisations your smarts matter less and less.

It’s about politics and networks and deals up there.

And doing things differently from the herd.

It’s about managing uncertainty.

And the one thing that’s certain is that you’ll be paid more to sort out an uncertain situation than a certain one.


Karthik Suresh

p.s If you’d like to read an article about studying situations using ethnographic research methods take a look at How to study an organisation on my Articles page.

How To Round Out Your Thinking


Thursday, 8.49pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Abstract thinking leads to greater creativity… But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. – Daniel H. Pink

We’ve all met practical people – people who want to get on and get the job done.

Perhaps you’re one of those people.

A no-nonsense, down-to-earth sort of person.

You know what you know and believe in the value of experience.

If you don’t know how to get it done you’ll find someone who does.

In the process, you’ll surround yourself with good people – a team – and your business will do well.

Or maybe you’re a restless risk-taker – some always looking for the next opportunity.

Someone ready to experiment and invest in the new. A Richard Branson type who starts an airline because he’s delayed on a trip and figures he can do better.

It can seem like those are your two options for how to go through life.

Either be someone who actively experiments and changes the world.

Or be someone who is solidly planted in the real world.

Be a river or be a rock. Those are your choices.

Or are they?

An article by Beverley Kaye in the book Learning Journeys is an interesting example of how to think about this.

Dr Kaye writes about her experience defending her doctoral dissertation.

She was a checklist sort of person, a get it done sort of person.

She was prepared and ready to check off the defence of her dissertation.

Except, she ran into trouble.

She was operating from her flat side, she was told and needed to get more rounded.

But what did that mean? And how could someone so practical and in the real world get their heads around that?

And it’s not an easy thing to do.

You know the story of the unreasonable person.

Reasonable people adapt to the world around them.

Unreasonable people adapt the world to themselves.

All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.

Those hard-headed business folk, whether rock solid or fluid experimenters are unreasonable people and have given us products and services that have changed lives.

Externally anyway – not so much internally.

We’re stuck in a consumer society and many people, although they are technically among the wealthiest in the world don’t seem particularly happy.

What’s lacking is inner change.

The Kolb Cycle says there are four ways to learn: active experimentation, concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation.

The first two are easy to recognise – we all start with flat heads.

The ways that round us out are harder to understand.

Can you look back at your life, at the days you spend – just look at them without criticism or judgement and try to see them for what they are?

How did that last meeting with a prospective client go? What worked, what didn’t – was she happy, difficult, neutral?

If you were someone else looking at your life what would you see, what would you think?

And what would you think was going on – how would you conceptualise the situation?

Or, more simply, how would you explain what’s going on?

To see things for what they are and come up with an explanation for why they are what they are is an attempt to round out your thinking.

To try and see without filters, blinders or anything else in your way and to try and look for explanations that are clear and plausible is the way to get started.

And then, if Dr Kaye’s experience is anything to go by, then one day you’ll just get it.


Karthik Suresh

How Are You Going To Learn If There Are No Teachers?


Friday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself! (from Tooth and Claw in Season 2) – Russell T. Davies

There are two things that I’m thinking about today – and they are sort of related.

The first thing has to do with knowledge – where it is, how to get it and who can help you.

And the second is what that help is worth.

The reason for this is that I’d like to find someone who is an expert on a particular research methodology – someone that can help guide me as I try and learn more about it.

The problem is we’d all like to learn from the best in the field- but what if that isn’t possible – you can’t afford them, they’ve retired or moved on?

In such a situation I’m always reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell.

It was about a boy – a poor one who wanted to be an archer.

His name was Eklavya and he wanted to learn from the best teacher in the land – Drona – the one who taught the royal family.

But he was too poor and Drona refused to take him on.

Eklavya was undaunted. He went into the forest and built a clay statue of Drona and practised in front of it – treating the statue as his teacher – as his guru.

And he became good – so good in fact that when Drona and the royal princes came across him practising they realised that he was better than them.

Things didn’t turn out too well for him, but before we get to that…

There is a concept in India called gurudakshina.

Teachers, or gurus, didn’t charge fees for lessons.

Instead, once students had finished learning they gave their teachers a gift – something that showed how they valued what they had received.

A pre-historic pay what you want pricing strategy, if you will.

It was a strong concept back then and Drona, when he realised that Eklavya was going to be better than the princes he tutored, was torn.

Should he be proud of the young archer? Or worried for the future of the kingdom when a poor peasant could be better than the royals?

Eklavya stood before Drona and asked him to ask for anything as gurudakshina – he saw him as his guru even though all he had done was practice in front of a statue.

Drona asked for Eklavya’s right thumb – and the boy severed it and gave it to him – ending his archery dreams.

I did say it didn’t end well…

Now there are more layers of story to this – but for that you need to read the epic.

The point is this – knowledge has no value when it is secret.

If you know something – then until people know what you know they can’t tell if it’s worth anything.

So knowledge is not an asset – not in the sense that you have to control it and use it carefully in case it wears out.

If it’s good people will value it – and value you.

In addition, when you put your knowledge out into the world you lose nothing.

You don’t know less – you haven’t had something stolen from you.

Unless you have a different point of view – one that sees knowledge as a business and something you can make money from.

Which, to be fair, is the foundation of the entire modern education system and the exploding number of courses out there.

Or you could read a book.

The educational business model that looks most appealing, however, is probably one that is closer to the gurudakshina concept.

The online MOOC provider Coursera, for example, lets you audit many courses. You can do the whole course for free – only paying if you want a certificate at the end.

If you’re in the knowledge business – and we all are to some extent – that’s an approach that might be worth adapating and adopting and seeing what that does for you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out Who You Really Are


Sunday, 7.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do. – Henry Ford

Choosing what you do with your time is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.

Yet many of us are required to make key choices early in life – from the point at which we choose what to study in school to the opportunities we come across when first looking for work.

How many of us started a job that was supposed to last a few weeks and then found ourselves at the same organisation a decade later?

What advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you now know?

This is a hard question to answer, for me anyway, because we don’t know what could have happened if we had made different choices.

One of the early contributors to career development theory was John Holland, an American psychologist and Professor of Sociology.

He came up with the idea that what you do is an expression of who you are – and came up with six types of personality – a formulation called Holland’s Hexagon.

These six types have the following characteristics:

  • Realistic people like to get things done.
  • Investigative types like to think and watch and understand stuff – working alone rather than in groups.
  • Artistic personalities are creative, inventive and more emotional than the others.
  • Social people are helpful and want to build supportive, caring relationships.
  • Enterprising types want to persuade and lead, be in charge and win.
  • Conventional types look for structure and order and want to do things the right way.

You aren’t, however, just one of the types – instead you’re probably a combination with three or so types that you could list in rank order.

For example, you might be primarily an investigative type, who likes getting things done and persuading people, who also likes creative activities.

The main application of Holland’s work has been in career development advice – once you select from the types and get an ordering that describes your preferences – you can then look for careers and jobs that match that list.

The idea is that there is a job that will work for every combination.

You just have to find the match.

The other way of looking at this model is to look at what you do right now – what you’ve been doing for the last month or year and see if your preferences describe your activity.

The chances are good that if you’ve been in work for a while what you do lines up with who you are.

If not, that’s probably why you’re not that happy at work.

Or, on the other hand, you don’t mind the work at all.

In fact, you enjoy it – but it’s the other things about the job that get you down.

The workload, the micro-management, the bullying, the pressure… perhaps a host of other factors.

The appeal of Holland’s model is its simplicity – you can relate to the divisions easily and have a quick view on how you might describe yourself using it.

What the model doesn’t take into account is important too – things like power dynamics, culture, the availability of resources, politics, and personal rapport with colleagues.

In the end, knowing who you are is a start.

A good one.

But very quickly you realise that what matters is who everyone else is and what game they’re playing.

So that requires us to develop the ability to constantly rebuild ourselves over time – to constantly learn and watch and observe.

Because the world is changing – like it always has done.

Our ability to prosper in that changing world will depend on how we see ourselves in it – how we create meaning and purpose and value for ourselves and others.

That means you need to be ready to recreate who you are, to match the needs of what is around you.