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When You are Sinking Become a Submarine: How to Win through Wisdom and Creativity

3 Mar 2008

Vivekacharya Pavan Choudhary comes across as a somewhat paradoxical figure with his sage like contemplations on the one hand, and impeccable corporate credentials on the other (he became CEO of a multinational company at the age of only 30).

Author of the book, When You Are Sinking Become a Submarine, Choudhary is also CEO of Vygon India, a French pharmaceutical company. At a recent Lien Fung’s Colloquium held at the Singapore Management University, Choudhary shared his own philosophical insights on winning through wisdom and creativity, and how to be successful without compromising on 'goodness'. Drawing from his recent book, Chaudhary contends that there are two kinds of people in the world. The first group , which he calls the “Viles”, are concerned only with achieving their end goals. For the other group, the “Naives”, the means to the end are as important as the destination itself. In his talk, Chaudhary revealed how the Naives can overcome the challenges presented by the Viles.

Getting the Perspective Right

Speaking from personal experience in the corporate arena, he said, “The real world is swarming with Viles. I was beaten and bruised by them. I was close to giving up when I came across a picture of a house drawn by my friend’s nine-year-old daughter. The house had a structure protruding from the roof which I assumed to be a chimney. I was soon corrected, however, and told that it was a dish antenna. I realised that I had completely missed her [perspective].” The reason, Chaudhary figured, was that he and the girl had “different psychological schema”.

Applying this insight to his earlier dilemma, he said, “This is the same mistake we make with the Viles.” Thus began his quest to map the psyche of a Vile, which led him to the conclusion that “Viles change forms and allegiances, are skilled, at times cruel, and often ruthless.” This discovery left him simultaneously “fascinated” and “terrified”.

Until, that is, he read The Bourne Identity. Chaudhary animatedly described a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, Jason Bourne (who has lost his memory), makes his way to a bank where he believes he will find some answers. He ends up in a lift instead with a gun to his head. The question that Bourne poses his assailant at this point is not about his identity, as one would expect, but about the number of adversaries he would encounter in the lobby of the bank.

This “ability to respond to changing priorities” is what is needed to confront the challenges posed by Viles, said Chaudhary. In Jason’s case, he shifted from asking “who am I?” to “how can I survive?” To be able to do this, one must “paint” a certain character into existence using the right strokes as described below in Chaudhary’s own words.

The Right Strokes

Handle Success and Power

“You need to be able to digest success and power. Success can go to one’s head and lead one to behave badly with other people. It is important to understand that people are the base of one’s power and mistreating people causes one’s power base to start leaking.”

Be Compassionate

“The enzyme to digest success and power is compassion. I often tell people that they need to discover their female polarity, the softer side to things. And this is important not just for men but increasingly for women too.”

Channel Negative Energy

“Often times we turn negative when faced with criticism. Convert the energy from the attack into fuel for growth. Instead of throwing a brick, keep the brick to build your castle. To do this, you must also realise the importance of creativity in turning things around.”

“Most people, when they find that someone has cut a hole in their boat, frantically try to plug it. Try instead to convert your boat into a submarine.”

Check the Ego

“The ego should be managed and understood. It should be used as a raincoat, only when necessary. It should not be part of your daily wear or general wardrobe. Compassion should also help you to transcend and transform your ego. However, this is not easily done. Till then follow what I call golden humility—keep all your interactions cordial and graceful.”

Identify the Type of Jealousy

“There are two kinds of jealousy that you will encounter. White jealousy refers to the kind through which people feel inspired, and try to emulate that which they look up to. This, of course, is not much trouble. Black jealousy, however, leads you to be so bothered by other people’s success that you try to sabotage it. But know that by the time you are done with hurting someone else, you have also hurt yourself. Also, avoid bragging before people less fortunate than you are. By making people jealous of you, you effectively end up digging your own grave.”

Vile vs Naïve: Who Wins?

On the question of why good people suffer, Chaudhary’s answer was: “They [Naives] think that by being good they will avoid suffering. Wisdom, not goodness, is insurance against suffering. Good people believe that karma will catch up with the bad people and so they ignore what is unfair. This is good thinking but it is not wise. This is, in essence, naiveté.”

He continued: “People around might perceive goodness as a weakness but a weakness can make you invincible if channelled properly. Goodness gives you a certain sensitivity which can help you get out of a crisis and exploit opportunities.” The reason Viles often win is that “good people do not have weapons”. Yet the weapons needed to win, such as building and maintaining a power base, contacts and credibility, are easily acquired through the sensitivity that Naives possess.

Chaudhary concluded: “We have both streaks [Naiveté and Vileness] inherent in us and we need to train the good to control the bad. Feed the good for it to flourish. This comes in the form of the company of good people, the belief that the good will triumph, and that the good is dormant in people and can be woken.”