On achieving success and happiness

I was very surprised the other day to get an invitation to speak at the graduation day ceremony at Acharya Institutes of Management, but accepted out of curiosity. Must say I enjoyed it, don’t know about the people who had to sit through it. Here is a picture (I am the middle aged man in purple) and the text of the speech.


Good morning.

Some of you might already have suspected this but I wanted to share this with everyone – this is absolutely the first graduation day speech I am delivering. Thank you everyone for having me today.

When I was asked to speak here, I thought ‘what would I want to say?’ and it looked like a big problem. Then, I used a technique I used often before – make the problem something that I can relate to. For example, if you ask ‘how can I solve the problem of world poverty?’, it looks like a big problem. But if you ask yourself ‘my neighbor is poor. How can I help her?’ – it becomes very relatable and solvable.

So, I asked myself ‘I have a 10-year-old son – what would I want to tell him about life, and I found somethings I could say. So, Srikar, this speech is as much for you as it is for anyone else here.

There are two things that absolutely everyone I have ever met wanted in life – success and happiness. Please note that I have separated these two – being successful in something does not necessarily lead to happiness. You have to work separately for that.

So, let me spend the next few minutes talking about these.

First, success:

You may define success whichever way you want – make more money, have an impact on the world, solve an important problem and so on. Whatever your definition of success, I have found 2-3 things to be very important for it.

First, keep learning. There was a time when a 40-year-old would say ‘I am still a student’, and people would clap for it. Today, it is absolutely essential for each of us to keep learning. Things are changing so fast, you do not know what job you would be working at in 10 years’ time –  in such a climate, as someone said, the ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn is going to define success in the future. You are graduating today with a degree but what you are going to learn in the future is going to be more important than what you have learnt till now.

That raises a question – so, what should we learn? Purely based on my experience with recruitment and training of fresh graduates, I would say, learn to communicate well in English. In my opinion, it is the single biggest factor that makes people ‘unemployable’. It is the first thing that people notice. I do not mean to say do not learn your mother tongue. It is not an either – or choice – learn both the languages. Many of the people I know who are very good at English are also very good at their mother tongue. Do not use your love of mother tongue as an excuse not to learn English.

Other important things I would suggest – learn how to think, argue and make decisions, learn how to code, learn statistics, learn how to manage your money.

So, where and how to learn? Fortunately, today this question is easy to answer – use the internet – there was a time when you needed to go to a library or speak to a professor to learn anything. Today, you can learn anything on the internet. In my opinion, the importance of colleges and degrees is going to decrease drastically in the future. If you look at it, most of the cutting edge technologies like data science are not learnt in colleges. People are learning these on their own and learning on your own has become very easy. I would specifically recommend Coursera – an online platform where you can get free courses from world’s leading universities. For school going children, you should try Khan Academy and learnzillion to see what I mean about learning becoming very easy.

Second thing about success: Cultivate good working habits – be disciplined, develop that ability to plan and follow through, become reliable – in short, be more productive. The best way to learn these is by actually working. I would recommend you start working as early as possible, one way or the other. Do not wait till you finish your masters or Ph. D. Go volunteer with any organization, join as an intern, start some small thing of your own – but get started. Of course you can also look up how to be productive online and see which of them suit you.

Third – this is at a slightly meta level – Treat life as a series of deliberate decisions rather than as a flow that you need to go along with – think carefully and make choices based on what you are getting out of each decision you make – As a concrete example, joining a master’s program after a bachelor degree should not be an automatic choice – you should first satisfy yourself that is the best option – for example, would a masters be better than interning at some startup?

Fourth – have some goals in life and periodically ask yourself how you are doing on these goals. Whenever you make a decision or take a step forward, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve, document it and see if you meet the goal. You can learn a lot by doing this. For example, let us say you are planning to party overnight. What is the goal? To have a good time. In the morning, ask yourself if you really had a good time. Take all things – effort to organize the party, money to pay for it, the hangover, the lies you had to tell – all of them, into account and ask yourself if that is what a good time is. If yes, do it again. If not, try something else next time.

Second, Happiness

Now, let is come to happiness. Like I said, success and happiness do not automatically go together.

So, what should you do to stay happy?

First, you need to be aware of yourself. It is not a cliché; it is not trivial. Think about this – you spend most of the time with yourself, in your head. And if you think about it, most of your unhappiness is about yourself. Most of your unhappiness is rooted in not being able to understand and accept yourself for what you are.

For example, say you have the habit of postponing everything – by the way, it is the most common unproductive habit around the world. How many people do you know who acknowledge this and take some steps to address this issue? I bet none.

So, you go on without recognizing you have this habit. You find yourself falling behind on a lot of things as you postpone things and every day you wake up feeling more and more unhappy about it.

Now consider you are aware of this – you take some concrete steps like having well defined deadlines, asking friends to help you, making public commitments and so on. You will fail sometimes; you will succeed sometimes. Irrespective of that, you are definitely better off than in the other case, in terms of happiness.

It is not easy, but it is not impossible. It is important to start thinking about it and observing yourself.

In summary, what are your strengths and weaknesses should not be treated like a routine interview question – it is THE question on which a major portion of your happiness depends.

Second important point about happiness is relationships.

It does not make sense to conclude a speech to 19 – 20 year olds without talking about relationships.

When I say relationships, most of you think oh, he is going to talk about ‘love’. So, let me spend a minute on that. What is love? – it is so notoriously difficult to express that someone just said – love is what two people agree it is. One thing is sure – I definitely know what love is not – it is not what you normally see in the movies.

For me, love is not a feeling – it is set of actions. It is a set of actions designed to convey to the other person that you care and that you are there. Think about this.

Let’s now move on to relationships – relationships do not happen on their own, they are not made in heaven, they are not mandated by the HR departments in companies. Relationships are built over time and need care and attention to maintain. We are not born made for each other, we make each other into what we need each other to be.

Pay attention to the relationships around you. Recognize the basis of these relationships – it could be respect, a shared understanding, mutual admiration or whatever else it is. Work actively to preserve and strengthen the basis of these relationships. Grow in these relationships – feel enabled and empowered.

Wish you all the best – have fun, be happy and become successful.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming any of this is original. Please relax about that. In these days of reading on the internet, it is becoming very difficult to keep track of one’s thoughts.


4 thoughts on “On achieving success and happiness

  1. Wow, what an amazing graduation speech that must have been, was googling for something and found this blog post by accident. Was delighted to learn that it was from the person who unknowingly changed the path of my life. Thank you Venu, you rock.

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