Mentoring: View from a Personal Lens – 11 Nov 2017

Submission for mentoring initiative spearheaded by Indian National Institute of Advanced Studies

I have been doing science as well as leading science in India for close to fifty years now. Mentorship has played a great role in my life. I have been both a mentee and mentor. I will share some of my own learnings from my experiences.

As regards mentoring, I have mentored a number of young scientists, young innovators as well as science and innovation leaders.

Five guiding principles have helped me.

First, I believe everyone is someone. Everyone has a potential. Mentor’s first responsibility is to see as to how the mentee could reach his true potential, and having reached that, how can he exceed that! And for this `one box fits all’ strategy can’t work at all. Each individual is different in terms of ability, attitude, aptitude, adaptability, etc. So I used to have a personalised strategy for each one of the mentees.

My constant common reminder to my mentees, however, was that there is no limit to human endurance, no limit to human imagination, no limit to human achievements, excepting the limits you will put on to yourself.

I used to narrate to them inspiring stories that will make them believe that this indeed is the case. My favourite story that often used to inspire them was about the conquest of Mount Everest, earth’s highest mountain. I used to remind them that until Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary conquered Everest in 1953, the feat was considered to be impossible. But once it was shown that it was possible, there have been close to 6000 conquests! And impossible looking feats have been done.

Someone has climbed Everest 21 times, someone has climbed it without supplemental oxygen, an eighty year old has climbed it as also a young boy and a girl (each of age less than fourteen) have climbed it, a blind person, a double leg amputee and a double arm amputee have climbed it! So there is no limit to human achievement. If they could do it, you could do it too.

Second, for a mentor, it is extremely important to be positive. When I was the Director of National Chemical Laboratory. I had the reputation of being a `Why not Director?’ Whenever someone came to me even with an audacious idea, my first response would be `why not’?

We have a big challenge that we all face in India. Anytime there is a new idea, there is a reluctance to accept it. Supposing there is a brainstorming on a new idea, the typical comments will be

`Too risky’
`Suppose it fails’
`Impossible, never done before’
`Somebody has tried it before’
`Let me play devil’s advocate!’

While mentoring young science and innovation leaders, I always used to emphasise two definitions of an innovator, which were close to my heart.

Innovator is one, who does not know that it cannot be done. Innovator is one, who sees what everyone else sees, but thinks of what no one else thinks.

A great innovator has to be curious. Curiosity leads to creativity, which in turn leads to new creation. So I had identified eight enemies of creativity. They are

Desire to please all
Big ego
Fear of failure
Process rigor

And I used to constantly watch and correct for each of these attributes.

My mentoring was also directed towards creating innovation leaders, who had the following attributes.

Find opportunities, where others see nothing.
Convert problems into opportunity.
Set quantum goals.
Drive discontinuity – encourage risk.

I mentored leaders, who had the capability of thinking beyond the realms of possibility. I used to always tell them that if someone asks you what is your business, you should be able to say, that your business was to make impossible possible.

The third principle that I followed was that one never told a mentee about what to do but how to do. And that obviously meant that the mentee will be learning by doing. Taking risks and, therefore, failing was an obvious part of learning. I used to give them a different definition of the world fail. I used to say `fail’ is `first attempt in learning’.

The fourth principle was that a mentor has to be a trusted advisor. It takes time to build a trust. And there are several aspects to building trust. The mentor has to be an active listener, with a great deal of emotional intelligence and empathy. He has to be open minded. He has to also lead by example. A mentor cannot, for instance, tell a mentee that you should take risk, whereas in that mentor’s own life, he has taken no risk!

So while telling the mentees that they should take risks, I used to tell mentees as how I myself took risks, not only when doing my own science, but also when teaching science.

I was, for instance, always fascinated by failed experiments, data that were outliers, anomalies, etc. I have written a paper `The Fun and Joy of Science: Learning from Anomalies & Discontinuities’, (Current Science, 2003, Vol. 85(7), p 860), where I describe how my own science was based on taking on risky problems.

As regards risk taking while leading science, I tried some experiments to create the spirit of risk taking by innovative funding mechanisms. As the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), I created “kite flying fund”, where audacious ideas would be supported. I set aside only one percent of my research budget for supporting any idea, which had a chance of success that was one in thousand. The signal that was sent across the laboratory was that dreaming and failure was not a crime. And I remember the enthusiasm with which this fund was received.

As Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which comprised 40 national laboratories, I created a “New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. Again the results were amazing.

Then I tried this on a nationwide scale. In the year 2000, the equivalent of ‘’Kite Flying Fund’ in NCL and ‘New Idea Fund’ in CSIR was conceptualized for the nation as a whole. It was called New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI). The key word was leadership. The initiative was to make Indian technology lead and not follow. I was concerned by the fact that India was busy in creating products that were first to India but not first to the world. But creating ideas that were first to the world meant creating ideas that were never tried before. This meant that there was always a big chance of a failure. So this possibility of potential failure was built into the funding mechanism for NMITLI. Again the results were amazing!

The sum and substance of what I am emphasizing is that a mentor has to set an example to become a trusted advisor. When the mentee sees that the mentor is practicing what he is preaching, mentee automatically trusts him in whatever he says.

Fifth and final. To all my mentees, I used to give the following Ten Commandments.

1. Your aspirations are your possibilities, keep them always high.
2. Like instant coffee, there is no instant success. Work hard, success will follow.
3. But work hard in silence. Let success make the noise.
4. Persistence pays. It is always too soon to quit.
5. Don’t wait for opportunities to knock on your door, create opportunities, build your own doors.
6. You can do anything but not everything. So choose. Focus.
7. Be curious forever. Creativity follows curiosity. New creation follows creativity.
8. When someone tells you it can’t be done, take it more as a reflection of his limitation, not yours.
9. `I’ in every individual must stand for innovation, not for inhibition or imitation. It is better to fail in originality, then succeed in limitation.
10. There is no limit to human imagination and achievement, excepting the limits you yourself put on your mind. So go limitless. Outperform yourself.

As regards my own experience of myself being a mentee, all that I can say with all humility is that I gave to my mentees the teachings that I received from my mentors, such as my own mother, some of my inspiring school teachers, Prof. M.M. Sharma, Prof. C.N.R. Rao. To all of them, I shall ever remain so grateful!