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Convocation Address 2013   

By Shri Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India

It’s a great feeling for me to stand here and address this young crowd. I graduated from college over thirty years ago, and visiting this campus is an exercise in nostalgia. You are right now probably a little impatient, restless for the ceremony to get over, just like I was. But I can guarantee you this - you are not going to forget today. Our milestones loom large only on looking back. We don’t realize our defining moments, when they are upon us.

Allow me to express my admiration for you, the top rankers of this graduating class. As a student, I have to confess, I wasn’t an overachiever. In college, I discovered that academic excellence and competition was less important to me, than most people. I ranked somewhere in the middle, I was nothing exceptional.

I can’t excuse my laziness; I really should have focused more on my studies. But along the way, I did learn something. That no matter what your passion is - academics or something else - the point of it has to be more than beating the competition.

Focusing on just beating everyone else, actually gets in the way of what you want to do. If anyone here has played a competitive game - chess, tennis, badminton - you know what I mean. The main opponent in a game, especially in a game with very close equals, is always yourself. I was a table-tennis player in college, so I experienced this in matches. If you don’t deal with your inner challenges, your opponent is irrelevant. Your own self-doubt freezes your feet, and slows down your reflexes. The ball becomes much too fast for you. You will play against yourself, and you will lose.

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You must fight your own insecurities, uncertainties and reasons for being there, before you can worry about the person across the net.

Once I decided how much academic competition mattered to me, I discovered my own priorities. I focused on things outside my studies - I was general secretary, and head of the organizing committee for IIT Bombay’s college festival, Mood Indigo. And I learned how to collaborate with people more easily. I discovered that approaching things with a collaborative mindset, helped me work even with people who strongly disagreed with my opinions. It helped us find common ground, and to get things done. For instance, the year we were organizing Mood Indigo, a devastating flood took place in Andhra Pradesh. Some students got together and protested that the festival should not take place, since it would disrespect the victims of the flood. The mood between them and the rest of the batch got quickly confrontational. I knew many of the people who were protesting, so I met them and reached a consensus - we decided that a part of the Mood Indigo funds we collected would be for the relief of the flood victims, and the festival would go on.

It was an incident that proved to me early on, the power of setting aside feelings of aggression and one-upmanship, and working together. At first, this isn’t easy. All of us know this - that we instinctively notice, and focus on our differences. It’s much harder for us to recognize the common ground we all share. But if you can do it, the power it brings is enormous.

Working with other people taught me that there were all kinds of smarts that I didn’t have, however bright I thought I was. And getting different people, different skills together allowed you to build as a team, something you could never build alone.

Seeing my peers as friends and collaborators rather than opponents, also helped manage the peer pressure around me. As Indians, we all know how powerful and intense that can be.

As kids, we are compared constantly - to the neighbours’ kids, to our classmates, to our family members. And trust me, it will never stop. Your parents and elders will never quit bragging about you. Or telling you what your cousins are up to.

But the question is, how much do you let that affect you or define you?

By the time I graduated college in 1978, our economy was not doing well. Many of my batchmates were preparing to leave the country, and were giving the GMAT and GRE exams.

This seemed like the smart move, considering India’s economic conditions at the time. I found the option intriguing, but I finally decided it wasn’t for me. I stayed on in India and worked for Patni Computer Systems, where I met Narayana Murthy.

If I had followed my friends, I am sure I would have had a decent enough life. I would have done a post-graduate degree in the US. I would have settled somewhere on the east coast, and done a regular nine to five. I would have had all the things in my personal life that mattered - a family, happy kids, enough money. And we may have got the same kind of temperamental family dog, who barked at all our guests.

But if you want an extremely fulfilling career, defining your goals through competition and your peers will not get you there. It’s not the right map, or the right toolkit.

Your goals should be set by no one but yourself.

Your peers are valuable in a different way: they are the people you team up with, collaborate with, to achieve the things you dream of.

I believe that this is even more important today. Our civilization is in a sweet spot now, when it comes to the possibilities we have to build things collaboratively. If the 20th century was about hierarchy, the 21st is about networks. The people who have the most opportunities today, are the ones who collaborate and build the largest and most diverse networks.

One reason for this is that the sheer amount of information available now is impossible for one person to process. How many times have you come across a great YouTube video, or an amazing piece of writing through a friend? It happens to me all the time. Throughout your life, your peers will be important sources of ideas, information, and different perspectives on the world. The larger the network of people you are connected with, the greater your chance of understanding what is happening around you.

The second valuable thing you gain when you build these networks is the ability to take more risk. I often hear people say that ‘it is necessary to take risks in life.’ But this is a very generic statement. It doesn’t tell you how to actually go about it.

One way to increase the risk you take, is to not take it alone, and not be the lone ranger. A high-stakes game becomes easier to win when you have a team of people with you. This was true for Ranchodas Rancho of 3 Idiots, and it will be true for you. When you work as a team, your capacity for risk increases, because you have a support system. Your teammates share the risk, and the individual burden becomes lower. When we started Infosys for example, there were seven of us - individually, it would have been impossible for novices like us to start a company in the environment we were in, and make it a success. Instead, the seven of us pooled our resources, and each focused on what they were best at. Murthy for example, was a great engineer and mentor to all of us. I was good at marketing and talking to clients.

The third thing you gain from collaboration is not just information, but expertise. A network brings different people - lawyers, economists, engineers, scientists - together to talk and interact. And when that happens, you get insights and ideas. You get to see new opportunities on the horizon before other people do.

People look at others who have made it in their life and career, and say it was about being ‘lucky’, about being in the right place at the right time. But it is the power of the network that puts you in the right place, because large networks put you at the intersections of different kinds of knowledge, of different kinds of people, of different ideas. And this makes it a lot more likely that you will spot the right opportunity, that you will know when the jet plane is about to take off, and get on it.

Luck matters, but so does what you do to attract it. You ‘get’ more luck by consciously building the right toolkit for the world around you.

Besides collaboration and networks, what else is there in the ‘luck’ toolkit? When I consider all the people I have met in my life, I have noticed one key difference that defines people’s interactions with others: they are either generous, or they aren’t. It’s not just generosity with your wealth, when you have it - it’s being generous with your ideas, your time, your ability to help. It’s being generous in giving people respect and recognition. I have always believed that if there’s a skeleton key to my success, this is it. This is the element that makes collaboration powerful, that bridges the distance between people and makes them your friends and your allies.

I have noticed that in my personal and professional life, this sometimes made all the difference between success and failure. Early on, when Infosys was earning its stripes with clients, I had a Jewish client visiting Mumbai for work. So I contacted some people I knew, to find out the synagogues in the city. When he arrived, I took him on a daylong tour of the Jewish part of Mumbai. It was quite an experience, for both him and me, and he became a lifelong client.

When you are generous, you find that it often rebounds back to you. Some years ago, the journalist Tom Friedman had visited me at Infosys. He was interviewing people in India for his new book. He had travelled around Asia, talking to businessmen, writers, politicians, and he was puzzled by the changes that were happening. He had noticed many trends - increased jobs from outsourcing, more people speaking English - but he hadn’t connected them together into a big idea. Since I was in the thick of things, I was able to explain what was happening. ‘The playing field is being leveled,’ I told him, because of the forces of connectivity, and globalization. The world was getting flattened in terms of opportunities people had. An American, a Filipino, an Indian, for the first time in history, had similar chance in using their skills, to get a good job in the same global company.

He used that idea as a connecting theme in his book, The World is Flat, and he acknowledged and thanked me for it. Many people heard of me in the US because Tom mentioned me in his book. Later, when I wrote Imagining India, he penned the introduction to the US edition. My lesson from all this has been, don’t ever hoard your skills, your contacts, your time, your knowledge. People will help you build on them, and make them more effective.

The way you choose to compete or collaborate will define you in many ways. One of the great things about being the age that you are now, is that you have strong, hard to shake ideals. But as you accumulate experiences, you will find that many of your convictions will get shaken up. You will find that the world is complex. That the truth isn’t easy, or one-dimensional.

But when you don’t have to rely on competition and the pressure of your peers to navigate your life - when the voice in your head is your own, and no one else’s - you will then be able to tell the difference between the beliefs that you need to revise, and the unchanging beliefs that are part of your value system. You will be able to keep to your compass, no matter what. You will regret fewer things.

I have come up against the law once, and hopefully the only time in my life. It was a Sunday, I was heading to work, and I took an illegal u-turn to get to my office. A cop spotted and stopped me immediately, and I began to talk to him, trying to explain myself. I could see that he wanted a bribe, and I wasn’t inclined to give it. But the moment I mentioned Infosys, his manner changed. He said, ‘You are from Infosys? Then of course, you have to pay the fine!’ He issued me a chalaan. I have never been prouder of the company, and the reputation and values it has held on to.

I stand here and I see your youth, your great promise, the opportunities that lie ahead of you. I know however, that there is a lot of worry when graduating - about what next? Insecurity is a co-traveller who turns up at the worst of times: it turns up when we are facing uncertainty in our career, in love, during our hardest losses.

It is at times like these that the toolkit you build will help you the most. Your clarity and faith in how you deal with people such as friends and acquaintances, and how you approach your work, will help you overcome nervousness, and give you the belief that no matter what, you will land on your feet. It will help you take control of the world around you, rather than the other way round.

All these years, you have been preparing to go out into the world and start your career. You imagine what its going to be like. But you know what? You should already have an idea. Your frame of reference is all that you have been doing till now, and in your college years. Because your career is not a single decision, a single move. It’s a series of many small decisions you make throughout your life. The decisions you make about working with people, or viewing them as opponents. The decision you make about following your gut, versus following your friends. The decision you make about what you do with your skills and your time, and how generous you are with them. All these have already started to define you. And all these will determine whether you will wait for luck, or actively seek it.

The last thing I will leave you with, is this.

Make active, thoughtful choices, in every small thing. Don’t switch to the default. Whether it is in how you talk to a waiter, or what your first job is. Because it is your choices in their entirety, that will define your career, not your business suit, or the two hours of the client meeting. Don’t think of the interactions in your career as a separate piece of your life. It will be a big part of what gives you happiness, and meaning.

So leave this hall, aiming high, for yourself. I left college with nothing more than 200 rupees in my pocket, and a belief in myself. You are graduating in a country with far more opportunity. If I could be successful, there is no reason you can’t.

Congratulations, class of 2013, and I wish you all the luck in the world.