From a rural and orthodox community in South India to sophisticated Switzerland, I have found myself living in different countries and experiencing whole new worlds over the past several years. These experiences have shaped me and given me lasting perspectives on life. Through this post, I want to share the main life lessons I got from living in Japan, USA, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and India.
Japan: What leadership means
Japan is the first country that I saw outside India. Everything about this country was an eye-opener for me. If you ask someone who India's greatest leader is, you will hear "Mahatma Gandhi". Similarly, in America the answer may be "Abraham Lincoln" or "Martin Luther King", in Singapore it may be "Lee Kuan Yew"... and so on in many other countries, most of which have their share of iconic leaders. I tried to ask this question in Japan when I was studying there. "Who led Japan in its transformation after the World War tragedy?" I asked many people during my time in this country. The answer I finally got through my own reflections was "Every Japanese". Japan changed my idea of leadership. It is not necessarily an individual who creates a vision and drives his or her followers towards realising it. Here, the process is more organic. It is the way birds flock and fish school together. Everyone leads and follows at the same time. It is magical. In Japan, collective consciousness can be experienced. This country reminds me of my favourite quote (that I learnt from my rowing coach at Wharton): "The melting of the individual into the collective consciousness is the ultimate realisation of human potential." I met my wife in Japan and I got a scholarship to study there - this country has given me so much. In fact, I like Japan so much that I named my daughter Midoari, which means green in Japanese.
United States: How to be free
I am a claustrophobe, but the US is one of the few places where I am free of this affliction. I don't feel constrained here in any way, not in my thoughts, feelings or actions. In 2001, back when I was living in California's Silicon Valley, I watched a TV show in which the anchor went to different places and asked people why they do what they do. One of the subjects was a sex worker and her answer was, "Because I like it." I was taken aback. I grew up in a conservative rural town in South India and I had a mental framework of "good" vs. "bad", loaded with heavy judgments. If this question was asked in India, the answer would have been "I was cheated," or "A friend dragged me into this profession" or "Family circumstances drove me to this job" etc. After all, it is perceived as something "bad". I became more aware of how my "morality" is shaped and this experience taught me how I can be myself in spite of the situation. The emphasis on freedom of speech and self-expression in this country has helped me to work towards becoming myself and overcome my false identities shaped by external factors.
Sri Lanka: The power of a smile
I knew Sri Lanka through the great Indian epic of Ramayana and never did I realise that this beautiful island was going to be my mother-in-law land. I am mesmerised by the beautiful landscape and, most importantly, the warmth of the people here. Sri Lankans are genuinely kind and their smiles can be captivating. Before visiting Sri Lanka, I didn't know that it is a basic courtesy to smile at another person when you look at them. When they smiled at me, I used to wonder why and if perhaps there was something wrong with me. It took a while for me to realise that it is simply good manners and I also became aware that I didn't have a smile on my face. Sri Lanka taught me the power of a smile and helped me to get my basics right.
Switzerland: Give more than you get
Switzerland is an incredibly well-organised country and a great place to live with its small cities and their excellent infrastructure. As a former management consultant, I know the joy of getting off a plane and home in 40 minutes - on public transportation at that. In addition, the picturesque locales, tastefully designed buildings, diversity in the population, focus on the outdoors and fitness, extensive and exhaustive public transportation, direct democracy etc. make it very unique. What fascinates me beyond anything, though, is the quality of their human capital. Last year, I took five driving lessons to familiarise myself with Swiss traffic conditions. The instructor charged CHF 95 per hour, which is unusually high. But every day when I finished the class and paid his fee, I felt guilty for paying him less than he deserved. Paradoxical! He was so good, so well trained, so service oriented and he was just giving everything he could to his work. I experienced this on many occasions in different circumstances and I learnt to give more value than what I got in return.
India: The beauty in chaos
I spent all my formative years and most of my life in this great country. Every day, every moment, is an opportunity to learn something new in India. It is simply unpredictable. What I find fascinating is how we complain endlessly about our country, but the moment we leave its borders we start missing it. Last year, we encountered a massive traffic jam in Geneva - one car got stuck in a main area and as a result the whole city was paralysed. We all had to go back home. If the same thing had happened in India, we would have had at least five alternate options to reach our destination. The insight for me was this: In the developed world, when things go well, everything goes well. When things don't go well, nothing goes well. The traffic jam is just one example. We have seen in the past how hurricanes in the US affected daily life for months. In India, it is slightly the opposite: When things go well, nothing goes well. When things don't go well, everything goes well. Even after the bomb blasts in Mumbai, the paani puri shops sprung up within a few hours and life became normal in a matter of hours. It is this resilience that brings the dynamism to India. I learnt to accept and appreciate chaos. Chaos can be beautiful too!