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Persistence, Deep Work and Learning to Fail Better
Looking for a job or doing well at work is not easy. There are many failures and rejections along the way to get through. Sundara Nagarajan joins the conversation to talk about resilience, deep work and learning to fail better. He is the Managing Director of Innovation Scaleup Advisors, and a champion at running the long distance race.
Many years ago when he passed out of IIT, he did not stop learning. He in fact, took it upon himself to dive deeper into technology than anyone else around him. SN is no stranger to persistence, be it across businesses he has created or be it across helping others. He has taught for 17 years at IIIT Bangalore out of a long-term commitment to helping others succeed.
Brij Sethi: [00:00:00] Ready to work ? The podcast with success secrets for the young tech professional. Hello, I am Brij Sethi and this is the Ready to Work podcast. Looking for a job is not easy. There are many failures and rejections along the way. You have to pick yourself up every time and get back to sending out resumes and doing interviews.
Even before you get to interview, you have to build deep skills that are valuable to employers. These skills required practice, over a period of time. It can be tiring yet you have to continue. This is not the glamorous part, but it is an essential part. Today, let us look at resilience and learning to fail better.
Let us also look at sustaining ourselves and doing deep work. We have SN with us today. He’s a champion at running the long distance race. Many years ago when he passed out of IIT, he did not stop learning. He in fact, took it upon himself to dive deeper into technology than anyone else around him.
SN is no stranger to persistence, be it across businesses he has created or be it across helping others. He has taught for 17 years at IIIT bangalore out of a long-term commitment to helping others succeed. Uh, welcome SN!.
SN: [00:01:24] Thank Brij. Thank you for having me here.
Brij Sethi: [00:01:26] Tell us more about your early years , right out of college.
SN: [00:01:30] I completed my undergraduation in 1979 later part of 1979. And, uh, it was a time of unemployment, as you know, and most of my colleagues also were looking for jobs in government or public sectors, and that was the major opportunity for employment. Many of us had that challenge of finding the first job.
There was no campus interviews. There was no campus placement, none of that. So I graduated from the college of engineering at Thrissur, in Kerala, and I was a university topper in that year,. In spite of that, I could not get immediately a job. So I had to go to Chennai. And literally made 600 job applications before I could find one job, uh and,
Brij Sethi: [00:02:17] Did you say 600?
SN: [00:02:19] Yes.
Brij Sethi: [00:02:20] That’s a huge number. Yeah.
SN: [00:02:21] I used to walk to different companies and gave my resume there at the reception, hoping that somebody would call. Just like a notice. Right? And I had to do that because I needed a job very quickly. Uh, and I couldn’t wait for even our results to come so next day after the exam. I went to Chennai and tried to look for a job.
Now with that background, I wanted to seriously get into computing. And I was applying for all these jobs and CMC – Computer Maintenance Corporation – called me for an interview and a written test in Calcutta. And that gentleman who interviewed me, I can never forget. It was like one of those God’s messiahs that came in front of me.
So he called me for the interview and he said, you know, if you want the job, you can get it because you’ve done extremely well, in the test, but is this what you want to do? Do you know what this job is?
This was the first time I learned about computer maintenance was not about computers. It was a lot more about oiling the various wheels of the computer and replacing some bearings when they go bad and things like that. And card-readers and tape punches, equipment and all those things like the olden days computers.
So he was the one who motivated me to join IIT. So he said you should go and do a proper course from IIT to learn computer science. And that is different from just writing some code or maintaining some systems.
Brij Sethi: [00:03:45] I think, uh, the importance of mentors, even at that time,. A mentor made a huge difference to you, right?
SN: [00:03:51] Yes, exactly.
Brij Sethi: [00:03:52] Even though he had not called himself, your mentor, he was just interviewing you, right. He literally reshaped your direction.
SN: [00:03:58] Correct.
Brij Sethi: [00:03:59] You know, you mentioned that you struggled hard in the early part of your career to find opportunities and it must have been, uh, very, uh, De-motivating to see setbacks.
How did you handle those setbacks? What did you do to keep yourself going? SN
SN: [00:04:16] Yeah. See, in fact, if I really look at myself over the several years that I have lived through this world, uh, in my younger days i was less concerned about setbacks. Its probably because of our middle class upbringing and resource restricted lives we had to go through. In fact, probably today’s world is very different from the world that I’m talking about. In the seventies and the eighties. The opportunities were not that many. And therefore our expectations, also probably were lower. We were not expecting that as soon as we complete, we get a job.
So sometimes that helps. But many people that I see today. Youngsters. ,Their expectations are very high. And they expect that the first interview they go through should get , should turn out to be a job offer. That doesn’t usually happen that way.
So every time you learn from it, .You see that. Okay. What did you do, right. And what did you not do right? Then? Try it again.
Brij Sethi: [00:05:15] How about commenting on the direction of expectations also? Because on one side, you know, financial expectations were not, uh, too high, but you were ready to not take up a job, uh, at CMC. Even though you had been applying at 600 places because you saw a direction that you should not be doing this kind of job, but the mentor says you should get qualified first and then do programming kind of a job.
So on that direction, you were, you were willing to set yourselves pretty remarkably high goals for yourself. Is this ability to be more resilient, also a function of being. Of, what kind of goals you set for yourself?
SN: [00:05:57] Yeah, if we want to reflect back on that, I can see that from my younger days, I was willing to listen. I was willing to change my points of view or my directions, by listening to other people who have experience in that.
Right. So even from my, uh, infact when I completed my PUC as they say, plus two equal into those days, uh, my interest was to do Physics, and become a PhD in physics. Uh, that was my interest.. But my physics professor advised me against it. So he said why don’t you do engineering and you have these practical skills.
And if you want to do P:hD at a later time, you can always do. Even an engineer. You can do that. It would give you a better career than trying to do a physics PhD. And we had a reasonably long on that. And finally, I was convinced to change my mind and did engineering. Uh, if you’re willing to listen, you always find somebody who understands what you are to do, what is already doing, what you want to do and get guidance from them.
Brij Sethi: [00:06:59] So, it is not enough to find just a good mentor. It is also important to listen, receptively and act upon what you and the mentor agree upon or what you hear. But as you get into a particular direction, you know, it becomes not just about finding new directions, but digging deeper into whatever you have chosen for yourself.
SN: [00:07:20] Exactly. right! Direction is one Second is, do you have the fuel for it. Right. Uh, if I really look at what I did – worked for my entire career. Probably many things were invented, after we graduated. So they were not things that we were taught in the school. So we had to learn things as they happened around us, and that meant a lot of pioneering yourself into something without much of a guidance, sometimes and be able to go deeper into it and understand and do that.
So that’s a capability that people must develop because that’s really valuable.
Brij Sethi: [00:07:51] It seems very, uh, attractive that, you know, you should build up skills and you should go deep into a topic. Uh, in reality, it can become tedious. It can become boring. And we have so many distractions today, uh, continuous bombardment from different sites.
Uh, how does one stay focused? How does one go deeper? How does one build skills?
SN: [00:08:13] Absolutely. In fact, people play games for three, three and a half hours. In fact, that’s a published data. How are they able to do that concentration?
That concentration comes from the fact that they’re enjoying the process. So you have to discover what else can be like that and where you can productively apply this kind of concentration.
Brij Sethi: [00:08:31] So I have noticed that when you sit down to write an exam, uh, if its a 3 hour exam and you happen to know the stuff that has been, that is being asked. Time just flies in an, it seems almost like an instant and the exam is over. What they call a state of flow. And maybe this is one of the rewards of doing deep work, but I think it has to be consciously cultivated in the beginning.
And I hear you saying that you have to make the effort to build this for yourself because without this – Expertise is not possible. So it is not about using brute willpower every time .That Oh!I am going to exercise my willpower and make myself study for a longer time or work at it,. You start by doing that maybe, but then it becomes sweet for its own sake.
SN: [00:09:21] Exactly.
Brij Sethi: [00:09:23] Uh, we have looked at, um, how to do deep work and, uh, how, uh, addressing setbacks and failures is important. Even in job search. Is there anything that you have seen as a recurring pattern as you have taught at IITB?
SN: [00:09:40] First of all, I find today’s students much, much better than our time. Okay. So when we try to compare, I would say like, what did I know when they completed my engineering?
Okay. And what was my level of knowledge about the world? What was my level of access to information to get anything in that factor, if you see. People know more than we knew in those days. Roght?. Uh, and that is also, because of the time in which they are born, many of them are born with Google sense, right? So, uh, getting information is very easy. You know, uh, many of them- they were born after Google search was born.
So that was a very interesting change in the way the world works. But what I feel, they are not making use of, is the access that they have got. The power that they’ve got, they are not using it fully. Okay. Because very often, I used to give challenges in my course, that if you are able to add one piece of code to Debian, okay. Go and fix a problem in Debian or do anything like that. Then you don’t have to write any exams. Okay. I’ll give straightaway give you A Grade!
Many people wouldn’t do that. They thought the easier way. You know, they didn’t want to take the risk of trying that .Some of them even tried doing it, but they also had the backup plan of writing the exams. Right. So that, you know, they don’t in case they didn’t succeed. It’s okay. They will get still a good grade. Points I’m finding is, they are less willing to take risks.
And their expectations are so high and they expect that they should become hugely successful, uh, before they’re 30. Right? So those are (not) realistic. They’re not realistic expectations. So that is something they have to be careful about. They should be willing to experiment. Certain jobs may not work out. So go on .Move on to another job where you can find a better joy. Uh, and uh, your engagement is better in the job, right? So, so those are the things which I find today’s students have to change. Students or early employees. Other than that, information is available to them. That’s not the issue anymore.
Brij Sethi: [00:11:51] So it’s interesting. You know, when we were in college, we would always accuse the topper of not taking risks because he was so keen on staying on top of his class, that he would not go out of the way.To do anything that would you know jeopardize his marks. And here is a topper saying that take more risks and times have changed. And these change times, if you don’t take risks – then just being good with what you do will perhaps not suffice.
SN: [00:12:19] That’s right. Actually, when I use the word risk, I’m not even meaning something that will be life threatening for them or anything like that. Or career threatening.
I’m talking about – be willing to experiment and discover yourself. It’s very important for the initial years there to discover themselves what they enjoy. And then it becomes easier for them and building deeper competence in that is also very easy. With all the information and artificial intelligence around us and everything that’s happening around us.
The only thing that will keep the person relevant in the world of tomorrow is the ability to learn. So you have to continuously be willing to learn and develop that skill and develop deep skills. Deep cognitive skills would be very essential for them to succeed. And those deep skills are possible. It may not be a stereotypical that everybody is greater in maths or data science or whatever.
If somebody is very good in art, somebody is somebody’s very good in history, somebody is very good in journalism. Whatever it is . They have to pick where their passion is. Passion is not about enjoyment alone. Okay.
When you’re enjoying yourself – it is entertainment. Passion is not entertainment, uh, Passion will also mean hard work. Like working out in the gym. If you want to develop your body – you have to work out in the gym,. Uh, If you are really passionate to become a body builder. Like, Schwarznegger – you have to be willing to put that kind of effort for it. That’s basically what I mean.
Brij Sethi: [00:13:46] So which brings us back to deep work and how you have to sustain and persist over a period of time, after you have identified something in which you can be passionate and not passionate as in enjoyment, but as in putting in the hard work like Arnold Schwarzenegger did for building his muscles.
So, um, thank you very much for sharing your insights and also your story.
SN: [00:14:09] No, thank you very much Brij. I think was good interaction that we had. And thank you for this opportunity to air some of my thoughts.
Brij Sethi: [00:14:17] Thank you for sparing the time and for putting this out. If you liked this podcast, do subscribe to our weekly episodes. Please also visit www.readytowork.in. for more insights on career readiness.