Lance Armstrong and the need for ‘visible success’

Lance Armstrong’s fall from the seemingly insurmountable heights of sporting fame has become a topic discussed about as much as the 2012 doomsday prediction. Alas, the former happened more suddenly and tragically than the latter.

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The embarrassing confession (Photo: EPA)

If, like me, you’ve grown up reading Armstrong’s autobiographical books, the revelation of his doping will hurt. Massively. He had already overcome the deadly challenge faced by cancer and conquered death before his very first Tour de France victory. In that, he was a hero already. But if human history is anything to go by, people high on success rarely know when and where to draw the line.

That said, can you realize all by yourself that you’ve got to draw that line? Does it always have to be that you’ve got to be different, stand out from the rest crowd to be noticed and almost worshiped? Armstrong wasn’t the first one to cheat death, and certainly not the last. Did he need a more visible form of success to be remembered in the annals of history? To have that true ‘fulfillment’ in life, do we always need someone else to tell us that we’re great?

Questions can get more curiouser, though. Would’ve Armstrong’s Cancer charity, ‘Livestrong‘, gathered the same publicity and importance without all his (now illegal) superhuman victories and feats on the race track? Would we all have still worn those wristbands? Would it have garnered the same amount of donations from the world over? And what now for the brand of the organization?

Erasing titles and the records of yellow jerseys is theoretically possible, but it is uncanny how the act of forgetting a bad memory is always harder than that of remembering a good one. Armstrong’s ‘make believe’, while it lasted, inspired a generation of athletes and regular people alike. He was sort of an advertisement for sport of cycling. It won’t take long, though, for people to shun the very thought of him when his actions should actually be a benchmark for immorality. In a way, he still is an advertisement for sport, of how not to be successful.

It would be best to end this post with Armstrong’s own words on the probe into the doping scandal:

“Its hard to define victory, but I thought I was out of the woods. And those were some serious wolves.”

He was right about one thing though. Its really not about the bike. It never was. And now it never will be.

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The best person for the job

Quite frankly, its not you. Neither its me.

The best tennis player in the world is somewhere in Somalia, scrounging for food and squandering away his true stamina and talent for want of opportunity. While my country, India, is lamenting about not being able to secure medals in the Olympics, the best archer in the world is living somewhere in its tribal hinterland. These people just haven’t been discovered yet.

The best young talent in the domain of car racing is somewhere in Afghanistan, dodging bombs and the remnants of a bloody civil war, whiling away his childhood playing with toys and excelling in mock car races with his friends.

You are not the best teacher in the world. Your college or your university just hasn’t come across that person yet.

You are not the best software developer or architect in the world. Your boss or your client just hasn’t stumbled upon the best person for your job yet, and the day he will he’ll happily swap you for him.

You’re not even the best spouse for your husband or wife. If he or she had waited longer each one would have found a better, and maybe a more ‘perfect’ partner.

In a world so varied in geography, economy and history, success and fame are a function of ability and being at the right place at the right time. Everything after that is just chance, and how you capitalize on it. This is the best tool I’ve ever encountered to help me keep my feet grounded at all times.

Wonderful feedback received from a student

Yesterday was my last lecture of this year’s sessions at the Fergusson College here in Pune for the Mobile Computing subject. A Kenyan national from among the class, himself a teacher back in his mother country, wanted to mark the moment by clicking a picture of us. Its just the sort of thing I like as well. Later in the day he sent me a wonderfully worded feedback e-mail, which I have copied below.

“I have received the pictures. At least they will remind me of the only committed teacher I have had in Pune. I really appreciate your pedagogical skills. You are a talented teacher. I can say this authoritatively because I am also a teacher by profession and I understand what it entails for one to be able to deliver information effectively.

Mobile Computing is too wide but you tried to make it manageable.

Again thanks a lot. May God bless the work of your hands.”

It is the best compliment I have received so far about my teaching endeavor, and I was absolutely speechless for minute or so after reading it. 🙂

I feel that its probably the best feedback a teacher can ever receive, and its importance and lasting impact is far greater than any financial reward. I’ve always tried to be honest in giving the audience the best idea about a topic based on the knowledge and experience I’ve had at that point, in as entertaining a way as possible, and it feels really good when someone recognizes and appreciates the effort. Though there are a LOT of areas where I can still improve, I will definitely cherish this feedback for the rest of my life. 🙂



Appreciating your colleagues – a nice example

Since the ‘iPad‘, Apple Inc.’s latest ‘creation’ is scheduled for launch on 3 April 2010 in the US markets (that’s a little over two weeks from now) the homepage of the company’s official website has been embellished with a few images and Flash animations of the iPad. Today when I visited the website, I didn’t expect to see anything other than that. But what I actually found on the homepage, immediately made an impact on me.

A screenshot of the Apple.com homepage on 19 March 2010 –

Apple.com homepage on 19 March 2010

After watching this picture, I asked myself a question – how, and when does one choose appreciation of old colleagues over advertisements and profits? When is the last time we saw any company put up a condolence message in remembrance of a team member in a place specially designed for showcasing the company’s new products?

For the record, Jerome York was definitely a valued member of the Apple team, and also of many other teams he was associated with during his long career. Just the fact that he joined the ‘guidance-department’ of a struggling organization says a lot about him, and anybody who is familiar with the history of Apple during the troubled 90’s decade would agree that this was no mean feat. But my point is beyond what York did for Apple. By this one little gesture, the company has made a bold statement about how it values it’s staff. Just imagine the halo effect this will cause within the Apple employee base and it’s fraternity. This sort of recognition and appreciation goes way beyond what any financial bonuses or other similar sops can ever do to increase their morale.

I know what you are thinking, that Apple chose to honor York on it’s homepage only because he was situated high up on the corporate ladder with the Board of Directors of the company, that they would not think of doing such a thing for other lowly employees. Fair enough. I’m no Apple fanboy, but this gesture does not talk about the company’s practices, it talks about the company’s ‘attitude’. There are many other organizations and banks who have a Board of Directors. Likewise many members pass away during their tenure on the Board. How many times have we seen they being recognized in this fashion? During his career York also served as a CFO with Chrysler, as well as with IBM, and at least I haven’t yet seen a mention of his death on their websites.

Just as a home is not made by the walls but by people residing in it, a technology-oriented company is not made by computers but by the people working for it. History has often proved that the organizations that realize this are the ones who eventually make the largest profit from the market. It is quite ironic that this fact was conveniently forgotten during the recent worldwide economic recession, when these very employees were treated like the least important and most expendable commodities. Yes, even Apple has had to lay off a few employees during its 33 year history due to various reasons (most importantly – some bad management), but it is events and gestures like this one today which helps in retaining an intellectual employee base as well as developing a loyal user base, and probably even a cult.

Another example I can think of where past and present personalities are honored publicly, in a more intuitive way, is through the Doodles we see on the Google search homepage. IMDb.com too marks the passing away of people in the TV and Motion Pictures fraternity by putting up articles and links about them on it’s website homepage. But Apple’s gesture today, is something which will stay with me for a long time.

Avoiding being hysterical about Sachin Tendulkar

Before I start writing this article in all seriousness, let me say that I am (and always will be) an ardent fan of Sachin Tendulkar. I have put up a huge poster of the Master Blaster in my room and probably it’s the first thing that comes in my line of vision every morning as I wake up. There should be no doubt whatsoever in anybody’s mind that he is a ‘phenomenon’ and a cricketing ‘legend’. But to the notion of glorifying him as ‘GOD‘, I have some huge doubts!

Sachin savours reaching his ODI double-century at Gwalior on Feb 24, 2010 (Image courtesy: Associated Press, Cricinfo.com)

Much has been said and written about Sachin in the days since his unbeaten 200 in and One-Day International (ODI) against South Africa. A lot more has been conferred on him in terms of awards, mementos, plaques and trophies by almost every Cricket club he has visited. With due respect to the man himself and the organizations rewarding him for his achievements, was all this exhibition really necessary? Instead of increasing the number of contents of his trophy cabinet, could these very organizations have donated money to charity in the name of Sachin? Wouldn’t that have made the ‘real’ difference? Sachin himself has always been involved in many goodwill tasks and charities. Wouldn’t this have recognized ‘Sachin, the person’ better?

It’s not surprising, though, for a country which is obsessed with making demigods out of living people. Cricket, like Football and Hockey, is a team sport. The contribution of one player can make a difference, but often it is not enough to secure a positive result. I wonder if Sachin would have made all those runs if he hadn’t had support from the other end of the 22-yard Cricket pitch. Shouldn’t they be credited too for his numerous batting records, and in turn the contribution to the team’s success? For an answer to this question, one should read the scoresheet at the end of the epic Test in Chennai in 1999 against Pakistan, where Sachin single handedly took India within reach of victory, and still the team lost by 12 runs after he got out. The same story repeated 10 years later, this time in an ODI against Australia at Hyderabad.

What if nobody was willing to stand his ground so that Sachin could reach his century in a particular match? What if the political situation in our country wasn’t as free for the growth of the sport as it is? A brief look at the career of another incredible batting genius, Andy Flower from Zimbabwe, and you’ll know the answer to that question as well.

The comparison of Sachin with some greats of the yesteryears is another thing which irks me. The environment, be it social or political or financial, in which former champions like Sir Don Bradman and Sir Garry Sobers played was very different than the current one. Even comparisons with the original Mumbai wonder Sunil Gavaskar aren’t warranted. The laws, interest in the game, notions of player safety, coaching methods, and fitness regimes have undergone a sea of change. Each one was, and is, a legend of his time. This is why distinguished sports personalities are inducted in a ‘Hall of Fame’, and not given the title of the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of a particular sport.

Sachin has always been a very good ambassador not just for the game of Cricket but for India too, but to call him as the country’s ‘greatest sports personality’ would undoubtedly be too harsh on other sports which traditionally have not had the massive fan following which Cricket has enjoyed, especially when the number of countries having a national Cricket team are so few. The name of Indian legend Major Dhyan ‘Chand’ Singh is spoken on Hockey fields worldwide with the same fervor, even 50 years after he stopped playing the game.

A few days ago I came across this quote, and it struck a chord with me instantly:

“By idolizing those whom we honor we do disservice both to them and to ourselves, we fail to recognize the fact that we could go and do likewise.”Charles V. Willie (Professor of Education, Emeritus at Harward University)

For me, Sachin’s real legacy will never be scoring all those runs in the Test and ODI arenas or breaking almost every batting record you could think of. His most enduring legacy will be the fact that his style of play popularized the game of Cricket in the small towns and cities of India, and maybe in other countries too. Over the years youngsters have looked up to him as a role-model, not just for his on-field magic but also for his off-field composure in the midst of a Cricket-crazy populace. Present Indian superstars like Yuvraj Singh and current team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni were inspired to be what they are right now because they saw him playing on TV. They wanted to bat like him ever since they were kids. These people come from relatively lesser known cities, places which were not short on talent but on good role-models and infrastructure, and therefore were often overlooked while selecting candidates for the national team.

In his early days as a budding cricketer in Mumbai, Sachin was asked in an interview, whom he would liked to be known when he grows up. He replied, tersely, “I would be liked to be known as Sachin Tendulkar”. That says a lot not just about the man’s confidence but also about his maturity, vision and practicality. Here’s another one of his early interviews –

As he went about making a mockery of the bowling attacks of other teams worldwide, he had his feet firmly rooted on the ground. He might have gained magnanimous amounts of money through awards and product sponsorship deals, but his approach to the game never changed, even when he was going though a rough patch a few years ago. Whenever he’s queried on how he feels to be called as one the game’s greats, he replies by saying that he doesn’t get overawed by the praise and is just thankful that he’s got the talent to see the ball a little bit better and earlier than other contemporaries which makes him able to hit all those stunning shots. In fact, this feeling is shared by one of Sachin’s favorite sports personalities, Michael Schumacher, who says that he just happens to be a person who can drive the Formula One race car faster than anyone else, and is similarly thankful for the talent but not overawed by the success he’s received over the years.

Sachin still ‘enjoys‘ being on the cricketing field. He still ‘enjoys‘ batting. He still ‘enjoys‘ being a part of a team which had just won a Cricket match. He prefers being out on the field under the hot sun with the temperature reading 50 degrees Celsius, instead of sitting at home in the comfort of his air-conditioner. The fact that personal accolades never interest him over a team cause can be gauged by his body-language while accepting the Player-of-the-Series award after the 2003 Cricket World Cup final match in South Africa, in which India lost to Australia. This is what we should learn from him – the passion and the enjoyment in doing what interests us.

Obviously, Sachin is as human as you and me, and is liable to making errors in judgement from time to time. I think he should be revered and remembered not as a ‘GOD‘, but as a sportsman who did his best with the talent he had; and that in itself is something most of us rarely achieve in our lives!