One can learn from everywhere so long as one is open-minded
While exploring taglines that communicate the promise of our university, someone suggested ‘Learning for Life.’ This made me reflect on when we learn and who we learn from in the journey of life, not just in school, college or university. I have worked in Human Resourcesfor the better part of my career. One of the rewards of working in HR has been the breadth of people I got to meet and the opportunity to listen to their life stories. Travel, interviews andinquiry are integral to the role and invariably create opportunities for human interactions and appreciating how people learn from life. I once had the privilege of interacting with the nonagenarian Dr TV Venkatachala Sastry, a renowned linguist and scholar. I asked him about Prof. Sheldon Pollock, Professor Emeritus of South Asian Studies at Columbia University, who hadspent several months in Mysuru learning Kannada from Sastry. With praise that good teachers often reserve for only the very best students, Sastry told me that Pollock became his pupil when he was in his late sixties. He was also a Padma Shri by then. Pollock felt that he needed to learn more to do justiceto his role as the director of the Murty Classical Library of India — that of presenting the greatest literary works in Indian languages to a larger audience by translating them to English. An undergraduate Indian student at PrincetonMolecular Biology programmewas puzzled to see an elderly gentleman attending the classes, often sitting in the last row, listening to the lectures and making notes as the course progressed. A few discreet inquirieslater she learned that it was Eric F Wieschaus, the Nobel laureate in Physiology. Wieschauswas 67 at the time.A recent tweet — ‘You don’t stop learning because you get old, instead you become old because you stop learning’ — hit this point home.
Sir Terry Leahy, the celebrated CEO of Tesco and arguably the greatest retailer of his generation, once told us that ‘our people have the answers if only we care to listen to them’. He was the CEO of a 100-billion-dollar firm, with over four lakh employees across 12 countries and I would watch him listening to employees and customers, becoming one among them and never judging what was said. His longevity as a successful CEO was in no small measure due to his humility, having his ears to the ground and gathering direct insights. During my travels, I invariably chat with cab drivers — which direction are the political winds blowing, what inspires them to keep at their job, how they manage money and so on. While they may not be articulate in the conventional sense or carry the punditry we get to see on TV, these conversations have led to many ‘penny drop’ moments. Business leaders who run their companies to the ground by over-leveraging assets would do well to learn from such earthy wisdom. In a story attributed to a disciple of Buddha, he is asked from whom he learns. He says I learn from everywhere.The point is we can learn from everywhere, if only we stay open-minded. When leaders stop being open-minded, they stop learning. This happens to many unknowingly. Past success creates patterns and formulae in the minds of people, and they think that what has worked for them in the past is the only right way. Some suffer from selective listening. Some create echo chambers, either through their force of personality or unconscious biases, and they do not hear what they ought to hear. These, too,are impediments to learning. The magic perhaps happens outside our comfort zone.
(The writer is Chief Communications Officer, Azim Premji Foundation. The views expressed are personal.)