Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Everything Is Not Business

Everything is business, we are told. Business, the discipline of making profits, is, to us, a higher ethic to strive for. In fact, it is the only ethic left standing. The Governments and its leaders style themselves as Corporate Leaders, rather than trying to be Statesmen; the Universities want to be 'business-like' rather than being 'academic'; charities and community organisations are expected to operate 'like businesses'; and even in families and relationships, being 'professional' is seen as some sort of ideal. And, this idea - everything is business - pervade education, regardless of the subjects taught, and we are constantly bombarded with assessments, deadlines and deliverable.

But what does 'Business like' really means? There is no one crisp definition, but there are some key concepts that pop up whichever way one defines it. These are 'outcome', 'measurement' and 'efficiency'.  

In any enterprise, being business-like means having a clearly defined outcome (or to strive for one, if there isn't a clear goal). This outcome is the centre of the universe, and everything else must revolve around it. Working towards this outcome is the way of the business, and means are always justified by the end. Being business-like means not to prevaricate too much about the justifiability of the means. Indeed, one may argue that businesses do care about unethical means because they may hurt the 'brand' and 'dissatisfy customers', but as is obvious, these thoughts are about the outcome - loss of business - than any other moral justifications. So, if something rough is needed to be done which may not impede the outcome, but rather bolster it, the discipline of the business would perfectly approve of it. 

The outcome-centricity also means that to be business-like, one must be able to Measure against the set outcome. This means two things: First, that any outcome that is defined should be expressed in measurable terms; and second, that while the means is exempt from any moral scrutiny, it is always subject to measurement in lieu. 

This leads to the third thing: The ultimate prize of being business-like is Efficiency. Efficiency is about achieving the set outcome with the least possible expense of resources, including Time, and being able to clearly measure this all the time. 

These three concepts pervade all aspects of our lives, including our private conduct. We are all told to become Highly Effective People by, expectedly, setting goals, measuring progress and being efficient about everything. Being serendipitous is considered a symptom of drift, keeping a tab of progress is seen as the ultimate virtue and being emotional instead of efficient an expendable vice. 

But this is where the limits of business-thinking becomes apparent and the folly of making everything business-like hurts.  When the end is indeterminate or unknowable, means can never be justified by the end, as anyone trying to define the end is lying. Some things can not made measurable, without creating a statistical illusion, and such illusions - like an University ranking - assume a life of their own once unleashed and pervert the very thing they were designed to measure. And, efficiency is not nature's principle - redundancy and serendipity is - and the quest for business-like efficiency distort our priorities.

And, one final reason why everything is not business: Time! Businesses define outcome, measure the progress and seek efficiency within a defined period of time, usually a short one - from a quarter to a few years spanning the CEO's tenure. But the social institutions impact a much longer period, families and relationships must work around a lifetime. The efficiency of business is apparently false and unsuitable when applied outside the context of business.

However, such explanations are unlikely to persuade people, because those who want everything to be business-like, do it for a reason. This is not to pursue a better understanding of everything, but rather to instill a system of value: Everything is money, everything has a cost, everything must be measured. They strive to box the human spirit, whose freedom has evaded even the most stringent of the tyrants and have become the source of all change. Accepting that everything must have a measurable outcome, and the highest form of working ethic is efficiency, is not just about embracing an erroneous way of looking at the world: It is a highly subversive political tool of submission.






Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reforming The Indian Higher Education: Rethinking Liberal Arts and Sciences

For those who accept that the structure of the world economy is undergoing a change - automation and political imperatives in developed countries putting a stop to expansion and even reversing the earlier model of offshoring production and back-offices - Indian Higher Education needs reform. The current system, which has grown out of the large, publicly owned metropolitan universities and technical institutions, has been primarily driven by the growth of private, not-for-profit institutions focusing on Engineering and Business Education. This growth meant that India produces an estimated 1.5 million engineers every year, the largest number in the world, but these engineers are crucially dependent on the Offshoring sector, which has driven the job growth in India for the last two decades. With the expansion of the sector slowing, there is a jobs crisis already: Various reports put the rates of campus hiring anywhere between 15% to 20% of the graduate engineers. 

However, this is a classic 'jammed escalator' problem: Only a fifth of the engineers can find jobs, but that does not deter an additional 1.5 to 2 million people joining the quest every year. If these figures are bad enough, this does not, yet, reflect the structural changes in the world economy mentioned above: Its full impact is yet to come and by at least one estimate, almost 70% of the jobs risk being eliminated. Sure, the conversation is that new industries will emerge and a new wave of globalisation will start, but that will need a structural change in the Indian economy and to enable that, a full scale reform of Indian Higher Education.

Which is hard, particularly as it is a system without any dearth of demand. Indeed, the job crisis has started to bite and the demand has started to slow, but any college meeting the basic expectations can still expect to fill their seats without a problem. In this scenario, till the sky falls, there is very little incentive to change.

Besides this, there are other major obstacles too. All Higher Education institutions are Not For Profit, which keeps risk capital, that typically drive innovation, impossible to obtain. Instead, the sector runs on black money, mostly ill-gotten money and land of the politicians, which creates powerful vested interests which keeps all competition out. Indian Higher Education is one of the most tightly regulated, with different overlapping regulators defining even the most trivial of the parameters, and this regulatory system is both punitive in nature (as opposed to 'development oriented') and extremely corrupt. Successive Indian governments have failed to create a meaningful framework for foreign universities to operate in India because of the stubborn opposition of the Indian Engineering colleges (and their sponsoring politicians) and they have also balked at allowing For-Profit competition. In fact, one thing that the government has done in reforming Higher Ed is to clamp down on Distance Learning - despite its apparent appeal for a country like India - because this was a way of For Profit entities to create surrogate Higher Ed institutions working under the sponsorship of public universities (the arrangements were often corrupt, with payments being made to Vice Chancellors of Public Universities directly, but the government effectively shut down the sector by introducing territorial rules, taking the distance out of distance learning). 

Overall, Indian Higher Education has been a scramble for money, and little thought has gone into academic developments or changes in work. However, as it happens in cases like this, the perfect storm of disappearing jobs and disaffected students seem nearer than ever, and some conversations have started about at least a partial reform of the sector. 

The most promising of these is the idea of an accommodation between the Education barons and the Government about allowing Foreign Universities to offer courses in Liberal Arts and Sciences. Indeed, most private universities do not offer Liberal Arts and Science courses and even when they do it, they do it in a superficial manner with very little commitment (there are some notable exceptions, but they are few and far between). The prevailing view is that the Indian students, and particularly their parents, are not interested in Liberal Arts and those courses make no money. 

Indeed, these views are completely mistaken. There are some great public sector colleges offering Liberal Arts and Sciences, and they continue to send a regular stream of high calibre Indian students to universities all over the world. The fact that Indian students often pay a premium to study Liberal Arts abroad should be a signal to the 'Education Industry'. There is also a great shift of emphasis among the employers - the recruitment policies for better jobs are no longer 'engineering only' - and among parents, particularly those with professional background and education. There is also a great shift in women's education, and the usual higher aspirations that come with being a richer economy, all of which point to a growth in demand for Liberal Arts education. And, if this is a speculation, one should also look at China (and Japan before that) where the economic prosperity and changing social attitudes created preference for a different kind of education.

My speculation, therefore, is that Liberal Arts and Sciences will be the growth sector in Indian Higher Education. This is also aligned with the changing work priorities, and opportunely unencumbered with vested interests, at least for the moment. This is also outside the Engineering and Business School bubble that has crowded out all innovation in Indian Higher Education, and hopefully be better placed for curriculum and pedagogic innovation, including introducing a research focus and greater engagement with work and community.

Opening of the Liberal Arts sector to Foreign Universities is still months, if not years, away, but there is an opportunity for specialist Liberal Arts and Science colleges being set up in India right now. Indeed, land is a stumbling block in Indian Higher Education - most good land is highly priced and held by politicians and other barons - and the land requirement for setting up universities is one of ways of keeping the sector under control of such interests. Yet, this whole new conversation about Liberal Arts may allow newer conversations to start, even if this accommodates some landowner in a new business arrangement. 


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Paradox Of The Commons

We have grown up with the 'Tragedy of The Commons' programmed in our brains. 

If something is common property, no one cares for it - we have taken it for granted. It is because the way incentive systems are believed to work. If something is everyone's property, no one in particular has the responsibility for its upkeep; and yet the person who gets there first and uses it to the maximum, gains most. So a common forest is overfell, common pond is overfished, common field is overgrazed. And, on the other hand, property rights really protect the productive capacities of the resources, and creates common good. How convenient!

This looks like common sense that can be so easily proved empirically. We know it from our instincts - from overeating at the buffet or binging at happy hours - that costs for using something makes us more responsible. And, we came to accept the conclusions that followed from this idea: That everyone is better off when the natural resources are privately owned, as the ownership would lead to care and care would lead to greater productivity. We even applied the idea retrospectively and rooted the British Industrial Revolution to the Eighteenth Century Enclosure movement, which allocated common land to private ownership, which drove up agricultural productivity, released men from small farming to toil in the new industrial centres, destroyed wool farming and created the grounds for Cotton trade and eventually created, as some claim, the whole infrastructure of a modern economy.

If the fable of the ancient communal society lies at the heart of all socialist imagination, the tragedy of the common lies at the heart of all capitalist imagery. The idea of private property - based on the Lockean notion of rights emanating from work that one may do on something commonly owned - is not only moral, but needed for the sake of common good. And, from this follows all the other ideas - that a socialist system is about inefficiency and abandoning of all human agency - about centrality of private property in our world.

However, two questions about the commons that should be asked. First, how true is it to assume that commons was an inefficient system that did not allow for progress and necessarily led to over-exploitation of resources? And, second, does this idea of private ownership create the right incentives for progress stand as an universal law, applicable everywhere, or these are just special cases more suitable for ponds and fields but not much in modern life?

The first question somewhat presents a problem if we are to see all human history as a narrative of progress. Some form of common property has existed all through history. From common forests and grazing fields to socialised health care and state schools, there are many examples where the common property has functioned, and functioned well. And, indeed, we have not caused a climatic disaster, not even at a local scale, by over exploiting our resources while we enjoyed them in common. That we have progressed to a higher form of society by introducing private property must allow for such progress being plausible through the existence of common property in the past, and that the common property has not gone away somewhat points to its sustainability. In fact, this story of progress can be told, with equal plausibility, in another way: That persistence of private property rights in the current times is a residue of the old Feudal power structures, which, now stripped of its sacral excuses, is sustained on the basis of justifications of efficiency.

The second question would extend this problem of viability of common ownership as we know that private property is not the best possible method of organising our affair in many important aspects of our lives. We have created an intellectual property system which has become anti-innovation rather than creating the right incentives for ideas, which is its stated purpose. We have now discovered, through diligent research, the ideas often spring from sharing and interaction, rather than being built through individual brilliance of a single inventor, the dominant myth of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. And, therefore, the contemporary policy-making has focused with renewed vigour on development and maintenance of intellectual commons, entrepreneurial ecosystems and the like.

For me, this presents the paradox of the commons. We want to build commons within a private property economy: All the cool management ideas of Open Innovation, Sharing Economy and the like borrows the idea of the commons and try to implement it within a private property context. These efforts underpin a basic contradiction: We believe that commons is inefficient, but look to build a commons when we look for innovation. With some success, I would say, we have built all those user networks like Facebook and even this blogging environment, where the platform is built on the efforts of millions of users - a modern sharecropping economy, as Nicholas Carr would call it! However, there is a limit how much people would do, and there is a moment, may be now, when people would question the wisdom of such schemes: They know sharing economy is about share-cropping and that Facebook should morally be owned by its users (using Locke's ideas) rather than its capitalists (who provided the metaphorical field).





 


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hinduism and The Indian Culture

My previous post, on whether Hinduism is the only thing to unite India, to which my answer was negative, was based on the idea that Indian culture is quite distinct from 'Hinduism'. It is this point that needs further elaboration, as the apologists of the Hindu India, both the traditionalists and the new liberal kinds, claim that they are one and the same.

I was brought up in a Brahmin family, and read Sanskrit - primarily as my grandmother was a 'Pandit' and a Sanskrit teacher - and read the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. For a year of my life, after I went through the 'Upanayana', I performed a puja three times a day. Later in life, I read Upanishad and Gita out of intellectual curiousity. And, yet, this still does not cover the core texts of Hinduism - most critically, the various commentaries by later Holy men, which, for many Hindus, represent the revealed religion. 

But this is perhaps the key point: That someone may grow up in a Hindu milieu but never see Hinduism as a religion at all. In fact, one can have quite the opposite: The Upanishads and the Gita may be read with an entirely secular point of view, or at least allowing for a non-intervening God. In fact, those texts, despite their age, are not too far from a rule-based universe, which the modern science would demand. But it is not the timelessness of the texts that I am arguing about here: My argument is that the philosophical basis of Hinduism stands in contrast with the idea of revealed religion. 

I acknowledge that for many practising Hindus, it is a revealed religion, a set of somewhat ideosyncratic guidelines prescribed by one holy man or the other about how to live one's life. Many of these holy men are alive - or their followers or successors run institutions in their name. While they all like to claim the heritage of the Upanishads and its apparent agnosticism, each one of them represent a parallel universe, with cosmic reasons provided for every ritual, tying down their followers into a tight system of dynastic loyalty through trivialities of everyday. This system of revealed religion is just as intolerant of anything that falls outside its purview. So, it is not just one caste that consider another sub-human, one sect may consider another heretical, and one text may contradict another. Hinduism never had its equivalent of the Council of Nicaea, nor it had the schism of Karbala. Rather, the whole religious ecosystem of Hinduism continued as a quarrelsome large family, with different branches being envious, resentful or indifferent of one another.

Now, Indian culture reflect more of Upanishad's agnostic worldview than the particular way of life of one or the other sect. It is the House, rather than the family branch. Now, this does not automatically equate it to Hinduism, because this worldview automatically allows acceptance of many other cultures and worldviews. In fact, the current confusion about what India is, and is not, arises out of the very conscious attempts to erase important cultural heritages from Indian history - not just of a thousand year of Islamic culture, but also Budhdhist, Jainist and other traditions (including a strong atheistic tradition) - somewhat influenced by British attempts to construct modern Indian history 'ex nihilio', in simple terms of barbarism and civilisation. Indian culture, therefore, is defined by its all encompassing nature rather than purity. With some exceptions, rulers in India, Hindu, Budhdhist or Muslim, have always ruled over different faiths, always keeping the secular and the spiritual realms separate (there were no 'divine monarchs' in India). India was constituted to be a secular society, and did not need a first amendment to guarantee such diversity. 

This is my essential point. I am not claiming that Hindu traditions have not influenced Indian culture - that will be ridiculous - but that the philosophical tradition that may have shaped this culture has nothing in common with 'Hinduism' as a revealed religion, which it stands for to its advocates. The Indian culture, based on a stoical yet responsible engagement with the world, is built of many layers of ideas and beliefs, absorbed from all the peoples who came to India and who carried ideas from it, from the ancient Arabic and Chinese visitors to the later-day Western scholars and administrators. To try to recast it in the mould of a 'religion', and to try to find heretical ideas to exclude, is as against its grain as anything can be. 

The constitution of India, reflecting the optimism of an Independent country, claimed the creation of a democratic republic based on religious freedom ('secular' was added to it later). But this reflected, paradoxically, the British idea of civilising and creating a modern India, allowing for, as the optimism fades, a new search for deep India. But this deep India was always there - the Constitution might have been written by English-trained modern leaders but they were reflecting the ideas wholly consistent with Indian culture - and while 'secular' may be an alien word, the idea was not. In fact, I despair why the Hindu nationalists of India feel inclined to claim the credit for ancient airplanes based on flimsiest of evidences (poetic descriptions of flying chariots in ancient texts), but always disregard the all-encompassing worldviews of their own scriptures and never protest the ancient Indian origins of 'secularism'. 

So, in summary, 'Hinduism' of the modern imagination, a revealed religion, can not unite India. Rather, there is a lot in Indian cultural tradition that is unifying. The two are not the same, and the claims that Hinduism can unite India is based on ideas constructed essentially on the basis of British imagination, just as English language as the unifying force was.




Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Only Hinduism Can Unite India"

The title of this post is in quotes because someone told me this. This was some days ago, over lunch in London, something that I stayed with me since. This is one post I started writing, and then deleted, and then tried again, and again - until this moment when I resolved the question of the headline: Rather than trying the feeble 'reimagination' or 'new idea', using this quote directly was better.

Indeed, there is nothing new here. This is the current conversation in India. In fact, suggesting anything else risks being shouted down in India today. However, why this made me reflect is that this was not coming from any zealot, but someone I know and regard highly for intellect. Also, this came out of no online spat or shouting match, but a reasoned conversation about India's future, and came from someone who cares about the country as deeply as anyone could. Finally, and importantly, the person telling me this was liberal and highly educated professional, lest anyone question his credential. In summary, I could not have dismissed this as a non-argument, a statement of faith.

Of course, I did not agree. For me, India is a modern, political, idea, very different from Hinduism, which is an ancient religion. I am sufficiently aware about the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of India to disagree with the idea of India as a mere placeholder for a Hindu sphere. But, as I would acknowledge, this stance is also a statement of faith, unless I can satisfactorily answer - "what else can unite India?" 

The history books that I read in school quoted Vincent Smith about India having "unity in diversity". This is a nice idea, but one could surely point to the Victorian and Colonial lineage of it. What really united India never had any easy answers. Churchill famously said that India is no more a country than the Equator, implying that this is a geographical expression rather than a political one. This is indeed quite a dominant view, and at the least, a lot of people believed that India was made into a country by the British dominion of it. The fact that the modern country of India still follows the colonial borders, uses many of its geographical and administrative expressions, and the language of English connects the Northern and Southern Indians, makes this a salient fact, not just a conspiracy theory. In more ways than one, the alternative to begrudgingly accepting Hinduism as the binding glue is to accept the Colonial Heritage as the basis of Indian imagination.

And, indeed, that would be wrong. The concept of India did exist years before the British ever arrived - indeed, they were making their journeys to India. And, it did it exist as a political entity - the Mughals were emperors of India - even if its borders were different from what we have today. Beyond political borders, India was a cultural and religious expression: Diana L Eck of Harvard's Divinity School makes the point that India was united through its sacred geography - the pilgrimage trails and sacred places - and to all Indians, this would resonate. This idea also should not sound foreign to those who believe in the existence of something called Christendom or Ummah, which are just as much political expressions as they are religious ones. Even the British tax codes united the country misestimates the unity of identity that Ashoka's roads or Mughal wars achieved.

Then, there is the question of English uniting the country. However, one could trace back the idea of English becoming the administrative language of India to the ideas of Charles Grant, an influential eighteenth century evangelical administrator, who drew his ideas from the success of Persian as the common language being used across India, by Hindus and Muslims alike. The success of Mughal Empire, for Grant, depended on its genius in introducing a foreign language in India, as the Hindus, observed Grant, were quite good at learning languages. So, the idea of an Indian Lingua Franca is not a British invention, but one they merely borrowed.

And, finally, it would be wrong to speak about British roots of Indian unity because the very basis of unity in Modern India was its anti-colonial imagination. That Indian National Congress, and Gandhi in particular, provided a common platform, symbols, messages and ideas, against the British Empire, where all Indians could participate, was a key factor in making of the India as it is today. Not the British influence, but the opposition to it, was at the root of making India.

This is why the point about Hinduism as the uniting force needs more consideration than being one of a partisan debate. We should accept that the idea of India, formulated in the early Twentieth century, needs to refreshed, for several reasons. First, because it is almost seventy years old (Jefferson thought the constitution should be amended every twenty years, as new generations need new rules). Second, the context has changed and no one is fighting the anti-colonial battles anymore. Three, and a related point, the Indians now want to be more globalised, which is the opposite of the sentiments in 1947 when it was about looking inside and rediscovering and rebuilding one's own country. Fourth, India's growing economy, young population and spreading literacy create an altogether different context than the devastated economy and disease and caste-ridden country of the 1947. There were some failures in the last Seventy years, but many successes - and it makes abundant sense to rethink what India stands for, and look beyond the legacies of the colonial past, with greater hope and aspiration than ever before.

This brings me to the key point of my answer: This could not be Hinduism. The assertion makes sense at a superficial level - it is perhaps the one common thing visible now - but not just that it excludes two-thirds of the Indian population, there is no such thing as 'Hinduism' as its most ardent supporters would like to claim. The public sphere of Hinduism and the Indian public sphere made of English and other cultivated languages (and the social media space this occupies) may now be one and the same, making the idea seem obvious, but we know that the caste Hindus make up only about 20% of India's population. This is less than obvious, because Indian census never tabulated the castes till 2010, and because the Caste Hindus dominate all the professions and educational sphere in India: But they remain a smallish minority. Secondly, despite all those claims of Hinduism being an open and flexible religion (including all the jokes about 'atheist Hindus'), when someone talks of 'Hinduism', we are necessarily looking at the doctrinal core of a religious practise, which is built on exclusion and superstition.

One may claim most Muslims and Christians in India were from Hindu lineage, lower castemen who converted. However, this does not prove Hinduism to be a democratic and open religion, but rather a cruel practise that excluded a lot of people. In fact, as both the Muslim and the British administrators of India correctly understood, it is Hinduism and its divisive practises that caused structural weaknesses of Indian polity, and this is why India as a political entity could be subjugated. In essence, while the modern Liberal imagination may confuse India's culture and Hinduism as one and the same, they are not: Hinduism divided India more than it ever united it.

So, finally, what can unite India then? Our time may be about building walls and pulling up drawbridges, but hope has not yet lost the potency. One does not have to necessarily look to past for building the future. And, one could indeed look at India's past, its divisions and its successive domination by foreign powers, and see this not with shame but for the strengths it provides: It makes India, I shall claim, 'anti-fragile', more flexible and open, polymorphous and inventive rather than rigid in the quest of a singular identity. It is 'Indianness', the ability to deal with diversity without putting everyone in the same mould, the cultural affinity with nature (in the form of whichever God one prefers to worship), our ability to learn new languages and being open to new ideas, that can form the basis of a new national idea: One that would be inclusive, in sync with our future and hopeful.

 

  


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Being Global: Designing A Certification Programme

In 2013, when we started U-Aspire, I developed a certification for Global Business Professional. This was endorsed by UK's Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) and subsequently, we got this recognised for Masters credit by the University of Greenwich. However, when we started marketing, we put more effort in selling longer programmes like an Higher National Diploma, offering a pathway to UK degrees. This is what everyone apparently wanted to talk about, and we somehow accepted that as a small company with little capital, we did not have the wherewithal to change the conversation. And, yet, when I look back at the U-Aspire experience with the benefit of hindsight, I consider this to be one of our 'original sins', as we got to obsessed with degrees. With the talk of degrees, comes the question of ranking, legitimacy and the rest, a conversation a small and unknown company can hardly win. Alternative credentials, even if new and unknown, has its own attractions, and, at the least, one can anticipate them coming from a start-up. 

This is my approach now is as my life comes a full-circle and I look to do new things again. The four years inbetween has taught me a lot of things, and one thing in particular: That all learning needs application. When I designed the earlier programme, it was focused on 'Competencies' for global business - something I shall talk about shortly - but it was very much about reading up, reflecting and writing. Now, as I approach the task though, I am convinced that it does not work without a clear link to practise, and I want to build this whole thing up again around clearly defined tasks.

However, while this approach may be new, the experiences of these years have also crystallised some of my earlier concepts. For example, the idea of Global Competencies. I did assume that there is such a thing, but I would have struggled to define how they may be distinct from the usual business competencies, like communication, collaboration and the like. However, the last four years for me was an intense exposure to global business in a new sort of way. Not only that I was dealing with contexts and cultures that I did not deal with before - my activities and networks in South Africa and China are entirely new - I was also working with investors, colleagues and partners with different mindsets. I spent time working in a company where most of my colleagues came from different cultural contexts, and spent a day a week, for several months, sitting in an office where everyone spoke Mandarin all the time. In summary, this made me think of Global Competencies as a distinct set, rather than just being more of some of the things I mentioned above.

When I built the earlier programme, I used a framework I came across in the work of Angel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh of Thunderbird School of Global Management. They suggested that to be truly global, one needs to have three 'capitals' - Intellectual, Psychological and Social. This was somewhat high level stuff, without too many details, but the idea stuck with me. 

The Intellectual Capital meant global knowledge, a general conception and ideas, of history, culture, rituals and customs, and perhaps language. This is the kind of ability which allows one to avoid what was perhaps one of most embarrassing moments in my business career, when, in a business meeting in Istanbul, one of my colleagues asked our Turkish business partners when Turkey became independent (only to be reminded that Turkey was an imperial power). This is also the kind of thing that saves one from faux pas of the kind I committed in my first tour of Myanmar, when I asked one of the business associates what he thought of the political stability (only to be responded with a stony silence). 

The Psychological Capital meant sensibilities, understanding of points of views on the other side. This is the kind of ability which allows people to appreciate different concepts of time and space, be comfortable with high context communication (when someone in Mumbai told you that he would come at 9am, and came at 10, he was not being sloppy - he genuinely expected you to understand the traffic context) and be able to see the differences in customs not as peculiar eccentricities, but practises coming out of thousands of years of history just as reasonably our own ways have evolved. 

Finally, the Social Capital meant knowing people from different parts of the world, and indeed, this is perhaps the most unappreciated part. I sometimes rather proudly say that I have a few people in almost every major country in the world who I can call a friend, and who, if I turn up in their city, would possibly make the effort to meet me, and I get the questioning look, "what's the big deal?" Yet, these relationships evolved without any business linkage - these are not the people I had done any business with, but more often than not, met them randomly in my travels or in their travels - and when I call them a friend, it is not for the want of another expression. I think this is unappreciated because not many people care much for such pointless relationships, but for me, these conversations, perhaps unconsciously, develop my appreciation for their ways of lives and thinking, their language and customs, and feed generally into my intellectual and psychological capital.

Indeed, that those authors call these abilities 'capital' rather than 'competencies' is important. These are meant to grow with use. We imagine competencies as something to have, a fixed stock, that we can bring to table in our work. Capital, on the other hand, is something we have and invest, only to grow it further. I grew a more acute awareness of this as I lived this 'extreme' global environment last few years, and realised my 'global stock' has gone up rather than down as knowledge led to understanding, understanding led to friendships and friends made me feel secure and connected.

Now, as I go back to drawing board again, this is my starting point. I am looking closely at creating an experiential programme to develop global 'capitals'. I am still in love with the certification - Global Business Professional - and the structure I envisaged, which combined travel and online engagement.  But, last time around, this was all built around content - articles, videos, quizzes - and less on practical work. This time around, I am looking to build a programme around global knowledge - understanding of business practises, cultural awareness etc - but applied around an area of global work - project management, account management, entrepreneurship and the like.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Educating for Mediocrity

The paradox at the heart of middle class lives is this - it is an unending pursuit of mediocrity.

I know we want to see it differently. The great middle class dream is the pursuit of happiness, in Jefferson's classic formulation. Happiness is about setting an achievable limit and being content with that. Happiness is an end, it is about stopping at a reasonable level, and not aspiring for more. It is about being what you can comfortably be. Which is, seen the glass half empty way, mediocrity.

Surely, pursuit of unhappiness would not inspire anyone. But this is indeed at the heart of educational enterprise, of the idea of an examined life. It is about continuously testing one's limit, a pursuit to escape the comfort zones. Even when everything seems content, the point of education is to question the very contentedness, and to introduce perspectives, spatialities and temporalities: No happiness is complete, all encompassing and lasts forever, is the inevitable verdict of education.

One could see the pointlessness of education if one only pursues happiness. My lessons in this came early. When I was young, I was fascinated by history and I wanted to study it. I was told, by my parents and others, pursuing a subject that has little career prospects is pointless. My arguments were that I was quite good at it and perhaps I could become a distinguished historian one day. The unassailable counter-argument that I faced is that if I pursue a more useful subject, I could perhaps get a job even if I am just mediocre. This was evidently more certain.

Mediocrity is the most terrifying certainties of middle class life. If one wanted to be mediocre, he will be. It is the easy option - the happy option, one may call - and it comes to everyone without even trying. And, yet, this is one of those big paradoxes in life. As in driving, as everyone thinks that he or she is an above-average driver making for a statistical impossibility, middle class lives are built around desires for certainty and distinction, a combination designed to produce only a fragile happiness and bland variety of envy.

Mediocrity is also one of the biggest follies at this time in history. Books are being written with titles such as 'The Average is Over' and the certainty that my parents were seeking has proved elusive (unfortunately for me, I embarked on the journey of certainty in mid-80s, which was already the end of time; fortunately, I did not care). Yet, as herds must follow the herds, the sacrifices in the pursuit of certainty continues.

Benjamin Franklin said, in another context, that once we are ready to give up liberty to seek safety, we should deserve neither liberty nor safety. This could as well be a verdict on middle class condition: We, like squirrel in the headlight, are being caught out by the fast developments of technologies of automation and globalisation, and scrambling for more safety, not less. The imminence of the end makes us give up aspirations even more readily than was in earlier generations: In a world where creativity rules, we plug up our ears and peel our eyes on textbooks, limiting rather than expanding our vision, expelling rather than embracing any imaginations of being different. The average may be over - we make average the new special!

If you think this is not making sense, it does not. If you think this argument is going in circles, it is. Perhaps this is not new. But our new perspectives let us see the futility of the middle class life of chasing one's own tail. The whole enterprise appears a paradox - all the oneupmanship to be average - and the conversation turns to pointless pursuit of education.

Satyajit Ray makes one of his characters say, "Learning is futile as there is no end of it". But its sarcasm is missed, as we arm ourselves with a sufficient number of degrees and declare the end of knowledge. Education's point is a job, and one can spend rest of one's life discussing the increments and cost-to-company, goes our thesis: Just that it isn't, not anymore. The endless of education resurfaces all too often, redundancies are discussed more than perks and illusory nature of happiness becomes all too apparent for ever so many.

I grew up to reject mediocrity, but we are indeed condemned into one. Even if the veil is lifted all too often, even if I know that all certainties are illusory, even if I know the settlement into happiness is an act of wilful blindness, being middle class is to maintain an illsuion of certainty. And, to square the circle, the only certainty available to us is to be mediocre, to be un-special, which is the distinction to covet for. 

And, education, in the condition of mediocrity, is inconvenient, if it makes us ask questions and push the limits, if it commutes our desire for certainty for a quest of understanding, and if this makes us wish to change the world rather than accept and live by its rule. Indeed, this is why we are inventing an education of convenience, one built around limits, a technical one concerned with skills of living in the world rather than questioning its existence.

This is as futile as it can be: We indulge a teacup storm and no more just as the epochal shifts hit the continents of the mind. Just as certainties disappear, we cling to an illusion of it. Just as the world is about to change, we cultivate a mastery of its affairs and commit to an obedience of its rules. We endeavour to be non-endeavouring, freeing ourselves to reach a limit and blindfolding ourselves in a search for treasures. The educators huff and puff, and their political masters even more - pretending a great effort and little yield  - in the effort to keep the world the same. 

All aboard, then, to this non-journey, the run to stand still, a wonderful education for mediocrity.





Friday, February 10, 2017

For The Citizens of the Future

There are other ways of describing them. An inexact 'millennial', approximating the year they were born in; a condescending 'young'; a technologically determined 'Digital Native'; or some other consumer label such as 'Gen Y'. 

But we did not try to invent a political identity for them. Partly because we don't want them involved in politics. We want them to be career-focused. If they want to disrupt anything, let them be entrepreneurs. The lessons learnt in 1968 was that they should be kept out of politics and we are following that playbook.

As a result of keeping younger people out of politics, we see the emergence of a new politics of the past. The proto-imperialists in Britain, who believes that they can walk out of European Union and gain their glory back in India or Nigeria, are channelling the angers of the past to shape politics. A cynical billionaire, borrowing from Adolf Hitler's phrasebook, is taking America back to a past that never was, bringing out the Alabama bigots out of the closet. All this is possible because the young feel that iPhones are cooler than immigrants to talk about and wonder why Coretta Scott King may be a bigger deal than Ivanka Trump.

In politics of today, we speak of contests of other kinds: Of religions, of nations, of classes. All politics today is therefore contests of ideas of the past. It does nowhere speak about the contests between the generations, though its generational impact has been the maximum. This impact, I shall claim, has made the politics of the previous kind quite irrelevant: British Labour Party or the Conservatives are great examples (as are Republicans and the Democrats), which are looking to stick to politics as usual and falling on the wrong side of the politics of the generations, wholesale.

This may now mean we would see a new politics of generations, and emergence of a new political identity, Citizens of the Future. This has to be about the young, who have just entered the political process and will be entering soon. This is about a new political consciousness - over and above the test scores, technology brands and career prospects - that would seek to redefine the rules of the game. Rise of the French politician, Emmanuel Macron, with courage of optimism and a cosmopolitan commitment, may be one case in point. He may indeed burn out - or become the usual reed-in-the-wind politician - but one would hope that he is not an exception but a pointer to shape of things to come: A politics that is wholly committed to the ideas of the future!

I write this, admittedly, at a moment of despair. At this very moment, the politics of the left has collapsed in the morass of pointlessness: Watching the Labour politicians voting for an unqualified bill to give the most right-wing Government in Britain the most extensive powers to shape this country's future without constraint or scrutiny was, for me anyway, a new low. The caricature of an Administration in the White House, where the first family is engaging in a breathless race to make money out of their new-found fame, is in fact less depressing than discovering that how pointless the politics of opposition has actually become. And, in this despair, my only hope that this new politics of 'Unite for the Future' become at least as potent as the so-called 'Nationalist International' of Trump, May, Putin, Erdoğan, Modi, Le Pen and the rest.





Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Education for Economic Development: Rethinking The High School

The work and careers are changing. As most process-based jobs get automated, it seems the winners will be those with greater intellectual skills. In the meantime, the salary premium for college graduates have risen dramatically - mainly as a result of non-graduates falling precipitously. This is taken as evidence of centrality of college education: Everyone should be able to go to college, has become the political mantra.

This is good for colleges themselves and hence, they have promoted the idea. And, as the educated usually takes upon themselves the role of society's critic-in-chief, the conclusion has not really be questioned. However, while the poor countries followed the cue and started expansion of college education - and, because the state does not have money, this means a poorer public education and enormous expansion of terribly bad private education - it is worth looking at the phenomena closely and exploring its wisdom.

At one level, work has become more complex and cognitively challenging. But this may or may not be the justification for college education. The way work has gotten complex is not by requiring greater knowledge, or at least, not always. It has become more challenging as it requires continuous learning, more collaboration and greater abilities of connecting with people. College education, particularly in the new private institutions in developing countries, is not necessarily geared towards the development of such abilities.

Rather, it often does the opposite. A college education is often about knowledge - why else an Indian college student would have to spend 6 days a week, 8 hours a day in the confines of a classroom - and high stakes examinations that come before and after such training. The idea may be that finishing college demonstrates the ability to learn more complex subjects, but the form of mastery is completely irrelevant to the emerging form of work. 

The college, in its current form, is actually a sorting mechanism, a middle class branding machine that differentiates those who can afford to defer working from those who can't. That way, the college is a tool to keep the society roughly as it is - finding a 'meritocratic' justification for the exclusion of the already excluded.

It has always been so - its current form may have persisted for the last 150 years - but we are at an inflection point at the workplace and it is worth looking at the justification yet again. This is worthwhile particularly as college-induced inequalities are being resented and challenged - we see this in Brexit, Trump and even in internal rebellions of Labour Party and many other places - and the whole idea of professional society looks as fragile as ever. It is even more important, from the global perspective, because the developing nations, including India, African Nations and many others, want to replicate the college-induced prosperity of the Western nations, and sinking faster into social divisions and wasting its abilities.

Rejuvenating the High School may indeed be the alternative here. One of the reasons High School was created is to prepare people for technical careers, before the expansion of college education stole it as a mere preparatory stage for college education. So it is now - in countries like India, it has almost no significance other than preparing for High Stakes College Entrance examinations - and this is a further evidence of wastefulness the fetish with colleges impose on a society.

This is indeed a better alternative than the efforts at building alternatives such as Skills education. This may have worked within countries with abundant industrial jobs, such as Germany or United States, or more recently in China, but this model is unlikely to work in a country where jobs are yet to be created. In other settings, such as in India, these are seen as second class qualifications - and a college graduate is often preferred over those with a skills training (which has given rise to absurd ideas of vocational degree programmes, such as Ph D in Plumbing - I only exaggarate mildly - which, if real, will make Ph D meaningless and plumbing bad).

A much better option than pouring money into Skills Education in the hope that the availability of 'skilled people' will create industries - the cart-before-the-horse solution at a time when the horse has bolted - is to rethink the High School and changing it, from a mere instrument of college preparation (in fact, preparation for college selection) to preparation for entry into adult life. This is what it was meant to be. This would be more inclusive than a two-track education system, and affordable by reducing the number of years in education, for those who want to enter work early. A country like India, with vast numbers and urgent need to increase productivity, can then open up the College sector for experimentation - particularly in terms of Online and Work-based degrees - and develop a Lifelong Learning Infrastructure around the same.

Rethinking the High School, I shall argue, is one of the most obvious solutions to Economic Development, but this is being deliberately ignored. We talk about the strong correlation between College Choice and Career Success, but deny that this proves an even stronger correlation between success at High School and Career Success.  The recent implosion of wages of High School Diploma holders do not any way prove the value of the college - though it is presented as such - but rather that this has merely morphed into a transitory state on the way to college. The absurd drive for skills training as a separate proposition merely accept the paradigm of college as a middle class branding tool as it is, and exclude people rather than including them. And, finally, ignoring the role of High School keeps the scope of innovation in Higher Education limited.

 


 




Monday, February 06, 2017

Would 'Exporting Manpower' Solve India's Job Problem?

The conversation in India today is centred on exporting workers. The Indian government is funding Skills Development centres across the country with a mandate for training young people so that they can find jobs abroad. Partly, this is a reaction to India's job crisis - only about 150,000 net new jobs are being created in the organised sector against 25 million people entering the working age every year - but this is also based on the policy thinking that India would be 'manpower exporter' of the world in the coming years. 

The wisdom of aiming to 'export' manpower is surely questionable. 

First, this also reflects an inadequate understanding of the scale of the challenge in India. In India, 70,000 people turn 25 every day on average, or about 2.1 million people every month. The total number of Indians living abroad at this point of time is 15 million. Whatever capacity of skill development for overseas employment could be created by the government, it is going to have a negligible impact on India's jobs problem.

Second, to add to this, the effort comes at a time of restricted mobility of labour. It is not going to be easier to send people out, rather more difficult. The political conversation in rich countries, without exception, is against immigration. It is going to be extremely difficult to send people out when doors are closing.

Third, the moral justification of manpower export is also questionable. There is the antiquated theory, practised in countries such as Bangladesh and Philippines, which sent out a large number of workers abroad, and their remittances kept the currency stable and allowed the country's rich people to buy their Land Rovers and foreign homes, wherein the overseas Bangladeshis and Filipinos had to toil away in slave-like conditions. 

Fourth, 'manpower export' as a conscious government policy is likely to skew the domestic labour market and development agenda. The jobs challenge in India can not be met by sending people out, but by developing the domestic economy. For this, India needs more skilled people, not less. It is surprising to see how much the conversation has changed from the 80s, when the developing countries complained about 'Brain Drain', but sending out skilled nurses and teachers, at a time when India lacks both, is not an intelligent policy.

It is also strange that the Indian policy makers are so keen to developing talent for global markets while they remain, at the same time, steadfastly protectionist in education and skills policy. They have made very little to build an education and training infrastructure that is world class, and rather, allowed a corrupt and inefficient system to persist and grow by keeping away global universities and training providers from the Indian market. While they subscribe to the view that India will become the preeminent supplier of global workforce, their thinking is limited to the number of bodies, and not on the quality of work.  

However, these deficiencies of Indian skills strategy is rather self-evident. What is not that clear is that the solution to India's job problem lie not so much in 'export' but rather in 'import' of manpower. Indeed, this is a big no-no for Indian policy-makers, and despite all their lobbying with rich nations to relax immigration norms, they are as averse to immigration as any of the rich nations. It is not even open to people of Indian origins operating freely in India, and have always avoided giving them the same economic rights as resident Indians. India does not allow dual nationality, and all other programmes, like the Overseas Citizenship of India, places significant hurdles for someone wishing to settle in India [For example, restriction on buying 'agricultural land', while not significant at the outset, could be problematic for someone setting up a factory, as some plots of land, even in a city, could be designated for agricultural use].

The point is indeed that the solution to India's jobs problem, which, if unresolved, can turn India's 'demographic dividend' to a 'demographic disaster', is the overall development of the Indian economy. 'Export' of manpower, like the 'Make in India' strategy which has been a resounding failure, is an idea past its sell-by date and it is a tragedy that the Indian government is trying to spend so much money on it. What is needed is joined-up thinking - a holistic approach to educational excellence, together with industrial strategy and outreach to investors - which is sorely missing in this discussion.

 




  






 
 

Saturday, February 04, 2017

How to Be Global?

For being global, this is the worst of the time and the best of the time. 

The worst part is obvious: Various countries now want to put themselves 'First' and that is not an ideal scenario to start thinking globally. Multinationals are in retreat. Trade Wars seem imminent. Currency disputes are heating up and cross-border immigration is becoming more difficult. Even UK, which proclaims its ambition to be 'Global' and has always benefited from being open, has started pulling up the drawbridges and succumbing to Little Englanders.
 
However, in this, there is a new promise, and that is the best part. The globalisation that we saw from the breaking of the Berlin Wall to the breaking of the Wall Street Banks was about building global value chains, of moving capital and commodities across the boundaries. We may be approaching an end of this phase. But this marks the start of a new phase - when the problems are global, from migration to climate change to terrorism to education and unemployment - and this presents a new opportunity to think global. The transition from easy globalisation built around trade to complex globalisation of concepts and solutions creates the need for global professionals, those who can handle the complexity of globality rather than just being a 'body' and turning up to save costs.

This new globalisation opens the question - how to be global - in a different way. It is very attractive to dismiss any global approach as naïveté, devoid of reality or out of step with current sentiments. However, not having a global approach means being blind about all the big challenges of the time, believing that one could go back in time or hide behind closed doors. But the formula that would have served the business school types in an earlier time - accumulating intellectual, psychological and social capital in the wider world - would not be sufficient by itself. Those elements remain, as they are rather obvious and only stylistically made attractive - and one would need to have knowledge about the world, should understand its ways and have friends from different places - but these, by themselves, focus our minds on solving global problems.

The new attributes of becoming global would necessarily include three values - curiousity, cooperation and commitment - alongside the three capitals, intellectual, psychological and social.

Being genuinely Curious about global nature of our problems is a starting point. This may sound obvious, but it is not. For example, one may believe - and many do - that terrorism is a problem for America and Britain. But the curious, keen on following more global news than the sentimental BBC or egositical Fox, will know that it is a big problem for Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Syria too. And, these countries, apart from regular bombings at mosques and market squares by terrorists additionally have to contend with bombings from American drones and all those 'coalition actions' if they ever try to step out of line. The curious will know that banning travel to keep America safe is crazy, as a country is not merely a territory (Mr Trump may think it is like a building) but its citizens too: It will be impossible to engage in the world if the Americans all have to stay home to be safe.

This will need Cooperation. Collaboration is a nice American word unleashed on the world, but the problem with collaboration is that it is something to do together towards one goal, the American one. True understanding the global nature of our problems will also lead to an appreciation of the multiplicity of goals it entails: That climate change is a comkon problem, but it presents different challenges to a village in Bangladesh, a fishing community in Southern India and an investment banker in Singapore. Collaborating towards the most important goal - making profits for the investment banker by the order of 'common-sense' preference - will not be enough to meet the challenge; a global approach would mean cooperating and solving each of these challenges together, which may mean giving up a bit of returns for the banker, and going more local for the fishermen and the farmer.

And, indeed, this will need a genuine Commitment to be global. This may mean going outside one's language bubble, as this may illuminate ideas and concepts which we will never understand otherwise. It will mean understanding cultures - not just in a kiss-bow-and-shake-hands style, but in a deep way of feeling its magic and learning its myths - by abandoning the normative judgements that we all make. This commitment will mean accepting that there is a global, human way of living and thinking, which is an objective we should all endeavour to achieve, by engagement with others. This does not mean abandoning our cultures, but using these as our sensibilities and tools to embrace and understand the world (just as we use our five senses, to approach the outside world).

It's a long shot, one may say, at this time of hatred and division. But such an inflection is the right opportunity: The oppressive globalisation, one that of destructive commercialisation, one way fits all politics and hierarchial visions of life, is in trouble. What we got since the 90s was rich men's globalisation, where money travelled free and ideas only went one way: What we got now is the rich trying to close the door and let everyone else find their way. This allows other ways to emerge, the possibilities of a different conversation to be visible. This is the time to become global, differently.

 
 




Friday, February 03, 2017

Why Trump Isn't Hitler And We Shouldn't Call Him So

Should we compare Trump to Hitler?

Hitler is a real historical figure, but he is also a symbol, something we invoke perhaps a bit too often. Anyone disagreeable in government is called Hitler, as well as any act which smacks of authoritarianism is quickly branded, 'like Hitler'. So, it is not a surprise that the spectre of Hitler has been invoked, as Trump is unleashed on America. What is surprising is that this discussion is getting serious, with Liberals writing detailed comparison why it may be so, and indeed, an assortment of angry Conservatives denying any resemblance.

Some of this Conservative case is easy to make. Contemporary America has nothing in common with Weimar Germany, at least at the surface. It has an evolved Republican tradition - the oldest in the world, in fact - and history of stable governments, and do not compare with the Republic that lasted for slightly more than a decade and regularly saw Chancellors come and go. Germany was blighted by economic crisis - the hyperinflation of 1923, the Great Depression and the deflation that followed - and the American woes are nothing comparable to what Germans experienced. The Weimar life was marked by pitched street battles between private militias and violence, and a violent coup, though a few attempts failed in the initial years of the Weimar and was deemed ineffective even by Hitler, was never an impossibility. There was the persistent Communist threat and overbearing presence of Communist USSR, which made the German middle classes queasy with democracy. And, finally, Hitler - at least when seen through the contemporary lense - was a madcap vagabond, an inflammatory public speaker but not much else, against Donald Trump the billionaire businessman.

One could indeed draw some parallels, like the economic crisis, the unspoken but real presence of violence in American cities, and the threat of Islamic terrorism that might have made some Middle Class people vote Trump, but these parallels would be really laboured and overdrawn. There were many things that one could do in the 1930s - like thinking gay people are abnormal or Jews are the scums of the earth, and pretend to show scientific justification for it - which one can not do any more, at least publicly. And, besides, that all those factors brought Hitler to power is also too simplistic a view: Hitler was elevated to Chancellorship through an extraordinary act of palace intrigue, by people who thought Hitler would be 'normalised' once in power and who was really working to advance their own career goals. In short, it was a historical accident, which was unpalatable to some, particularly the Communists, but no one saw that as a historical event as it turned out to be. And, when Hitler did go after the groups - Communists and Social Democrats first, then the 'degenerates', then the Catholics, then the Jews (with overlaps and many things inbetween, but focusing on one 'public enemy' at a time) - the other groups mostly stood aloof, and even applauded. Till, indeed, the Gestapo came for them. So, Hitler was a non-event - more precisely, Hitler was not called out as The Hitler when he was elected Chancellor. 

It is also important to realise the comparison with Hitler somewhat undermine the danger that Trump poses. Hitler was crazy but convinced that he was a man on a mission, the reincarnation of a German hero, and went about his terrible business with a righteous certainty that was mind-boggling. Trump on the other hand, is perfectly sane (despite all the ridiculous reports about his mental health) and cynical, though, admittedly, he surrounds himself with a few crazies of his own. He represents not the ancient German hero but the modern CEO, for whom the result matters and not the way, and for whom, power is a tool for personal advancement. And, add to that the realities of the United States - it is the most powerful country in the world and has the tools to enforce its will on anyone, something Germany could do only in Hitler's illusions. Trump is a far more dangerous leader than Hitler: He, as the American President has the ability to wreck the global order in a way a German Chancellor in the 1930s could not do (which Hitler ended up doing, but through stupidity and complicity of other leaders and countries), and could, like a CEO, can gamble his way to the precipice and then take everyone down with them.

And, this Trump-as-Hitler debate shows, if anything, how clueless the Liberal position has become. This comparison not only underplays the dangers, but also allows Trump some advantages. One could see this in the Conservative push-back in this debate. The Trump-as-Hitler metaphor has now been, conveniently, translated into Trump-vs-Hitler comparison, making Trump's actions look benign and the comparison outlandish. The nuances of hindsight, which apply to Hitler but exempt Trump, are important in assessing historical impact, and therefore, this is a false comparison that works in favour of Trump. Hence, for a completely different reason from those who are celebrating the victory of Mr Drumpf (that Trump is of German descent and his family name was Drumpf are obscure facts, but perhaps more plausible connection between Trump and German than the Hitler moniker), Trump should not be compared with Hitler but be called out for the dangers he poses on his own.




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