Friday, June 4, 2010

The Regret of a Lifetime

There is a wonderful book titled "The Pursuit of Excellence" by M.V.Kamath, a former editor - perhaps the last editor - of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India.

It's a short book - running into less than a hundred pages in all. But some book it is.

Mr.Kamath recounts an incident from the life of President Jimmy Carter of the United States. ("Why Not the Best?" by Jimmy Carter.)

It seems the young Carter had applied for a job in the nuclear submarine programme and one Admiral Rickover interviewed him for over two hours. Carter was allowed to choose the subjects he wished to discuss. In Carter's own words, "in each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen." Admiral Rickover asked him "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?". Carter swelled his chest with pride and replied : "Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 320." Instead of the congratulations he had expected, he was greeted with the question "Did you do your best?" Carter was about to say "Yes, sir" but checked himself in time because he "remembered who this was", gulped and said "No, sir, I didn't always do my best."

The final part of this incident as quoted by Mr.Kamath remains etched in my memory. I shall once again quote Mr.Kamath's quote from Carter's book.

"He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget - or to answer. He said "Why not?"

Nor am I able to forget the question or answer it.

Yes, I did a pretty good job at my studies. I am remembered with awe wherever I have studied or worked. I am fairly well read - my reading spreading across several disciplines - and I am heard with respect when I say something. In short, I have always done a pretty good job of whatever I have chosen to do anytime.

Yet, I could have done a lot better. I am certain that I have not always done my best. I am just as unable as Carter to answer that stunning question "Why not?"

I remember all the time wasted in one frivolous pursuit or the other. I remember the various occasions when I failed to probe something deeper to gain a perfect understanding - the familiar refrain on each occasion being "Oh, that is not all that important for the exams." or the equally familiar excuse "I don't have the time to go into that now."

It is partly true that I was trying to bite more than what I could comfortably chew - given my varied interests. But, looking back, I wonder why on earth I had to do that. I have certainly done better than the proverbial "Jack of all trades" since I did acquire a robust understanding of the subjects of my academic courses but fell way short of the mastery I would have liked.

Perhaps I should have spent much less time on less important things like an evening of fun and frolic - particularly because I always enjoyed reading my lessons just as much as I enjoyed playing a game or watching a movie and did not need those for relaxation or entertainment.

I wish I could undo all that now. I wish I could recapture the lost time and the wasted opportunities to do better. I wish I had better sense back then. Perhaps this book by Mr.Kamath would have done me a world of good way back then had I stumbled upon it in those days.

Excellence does not come easy, as Mr.Kamath goes on to say. I wish I were more conscious of the need to excel then - much beyond what I have managed to do.

That remains a regret - the regret of a lifetime.



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