This might turn out to be quite a cliched read, but if there is one human being who’s been a constant teacher to me, day in and day out, it’s been my mother.
There are two primary ways I have learned any life-related lesson. The first way is learning how not to do something. For example, you see someone waste away their day- not working hard, talking behind people’s backs, gossiping away about everyone, so on and so forth. You also find them being miserable, irritated, and generally not-in-tune with the world around them.
The second way is through inspiration — You learn how a better, more fulfilling life can be lived because someone else sets an example by doing just that. What I’ve learned from my mother would (mostly) fall into the second bucket. Her actions, words and how she responds to events around her, have taught me more about life than any form of formal education has.
No, I will not be naive and say she’s the ‘best mother on the planet’. (She’s definitely not). She’s also not the most engaging, or the most loving or someone with the best personality. (She’s not even a very good cook, to be honest). But she is the most genuinely ‘human’ being I have known in my life. The perfectly imperfect woman, trying to be a little better each day of her life. That’s my mother.
In the last thirty two years of knowing this truly intriguing human being, out of all that I’ve learned from her, these four lessons stand out and are tenets for how I lead my life today.
Duty (and Karma) is the essence of life
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when my brother and I were in our late 10s or early teens, life was very different than it is now. As a household, we weren’t very well off. For me, personally, there were also quite a few issues at home (wasn’t living in harmony with myself), I had a troubled school life (was bullied a lot), and in general, I wasn’t a confident child from the inside. I did not have much direction in life. Amidst all this, the only silver lining was home — especially after 6pm, when my mother usually got back from work.
After having woken up at 4am to cook food for the household, clean the kitchen and get ready to leave for work by 7am, she’d come back in the evening with the raw energy & fresh happiness of someone who’d probably just got back from a spa. My brother and I would invariably be playing cricket in the park outside and the first thing she’d do is to get us a cold glass of milk, or juice, so that we could quench our thirst and play harder.
When we got back home, she’d have cleaned up all the mess we made during the day, cooked some nice vegetable curry with dal (lentils) and would ask us to quickly take a shower so we could have dinner together. She wouldn’t eat till we sat with her. I remember laughing a lot - sharing tidbits of school, elaborately explaining how I hit the winning runs or scored a last minute goal that evening - and her listening to everything, my brother and I shared, with a smile on her face
As a young and impressionable kid, this machine-like efficiency and diligence of my mother left an indelible mark on my soul. I later asked her how she got the energy and push to continuously do this, day in and day out. (She had a six day week at work too, mind you). She said, it was her duty. The duty brought energy, the duty showed her the path and the duty defined her purpose.
Duty or Karma was everything. And that was Lesson #1.
I’ve always been bad at finances (I still am but have improved a LOT). But at the core of all my monetary endeavours are real-world lessons from my mother.
She is a chartered account, and now leads the finance function of a large PSU in India but she never drilled any finance-related knowledge into me, unless I asked her. That’s how she is. She’ll never preach. Ever. And I respect that.
Anyway, one of the earliest money-related learnings (and possibly the only money-related learning I took from her) was that saving money had nothing to do with cutting back on one’s spending. It just meant that there should not be any incorrect spending. She taught me the difference between being intelligent about money and being miserly. One should never back down from spending money where it is due. Also, one should never put oneself in a position where one has to ask anyone else for money. While we were not financially ‘well-off’, we always had enough for ourselves. My mother made sure we never delayed payments to any of our dependents (like our maid), had enough for any sudden expenses on education or to buy things that could help us grow in our school or college life.
I remember wanting to buy a new digicam in the year 2004 or so. It cost about INR. 6000 (USD 120) back then. She made sure we saved a little money, every month, for about 6 months, to be able to purchase the camera. She taught us focus, and living within our means. Not being able to buy a product that we would classify as an unnecessary ‘luxury’, at the time, was a small sacrifice made, so that we had enough to manage any untoward needs.
Another example that comes to mind on how she thought differently and kindly. If while playing cricket, someone did break our window pane, my mom would just ask the scared kid to go call the repair guy and we’d take care of the rest. (Other neighbours, rich ones, would fight tooth & nail to get their new window paid for, by us poor ‘rowdy’ teenagers). I will always remember that.
She also always made sure that the poor & needy were given their dues well in time, stark contrast to how other adults always seemed to delay payments to the folks who worked for them, but would have no qualms in spending extra for a movie, dining out or for the latest 800W music system (that they’d never use).
Managing money meant being mindful, and not mindless with your decisions about money. Lesson #2.
Growth means shifting out of your comfort zone
Over the course of time, my mom, brother and I had become more like a team. We got each other, had each other’s back and were able to manage most of the household, school and college related items without too many worries. My mom and brother have always been simple, happy and uncomplicated. But we can’t say the same about me. I have been a big burden to these two because of my adolescent issues, thoughts about how things ought to be and a generally lame attitude about my own environment. My mother took it in her stride and hoped for the best, for me. (I like to think that her hopes & prayers paid in the end because I was able to let go off quite a few demons as I progressed in life, and became a better human being, eventually).
Barring a couple of years of me going into a shell of behavioural issues, we had developed a great camaraderie, and were there for each other through thick and thin.
Some time in the year 2008, when I’d just turned 20, and my brother was 13, mom was asked to move to Bangalore as part of her next promotion at work. It was a massive, life altering decision. My brother and I were a bit worried at first but my mom was certain of our ability to manage things. And she loved her job. As I said, her work ethic & sense of duty (in this case, towards the organization, and the country) was out of this world. As far as she was concerned, her organization had asked her to do something and there were no two ways about it. She made sure we were equipped enough to manage the home, ensured that she trained our cook + maid to do things as she would have, and she continued to support our lives from afar. Frankly speaking, she did more, from 2000kms away, than I was doing while sitting at home.
All in all, that experience was life-changing. It made me a better human being, created a lasting bond between my brother and me, gave us a sense of responsibility that we have never given up, even today. But it also taught us that taking hard decisions, being uncomfortable and jumping without knowing how hard the landing will be, was the only way to progress in life.
That was Lesson #3.
Being mindful and being appreciative — Our biggest cheer leader
In today’s world, many of us (across roles & functions) are hell bent on blowing our own trumpet, publicising the smallest of achievements, internally (within our organization and family) and externally (social media, friend circles, journals and news articles). There are very few of us who would genuinely feel happy about the achievements or milestones others reach. Being a cheer leader for someone else is tough, even if that person is related to you.
My mother has been a force of nature at work, she’s accomplished so much, manages millions of dollars worth of engagements (maybe even billions, who knows), has closed large scale deals, works across so many BUs, has to navigate many different environments (including being one of the few women in leadership in a PSU). But she has never said any of these things to us.
One day, in my previous job, where I sold books for a living, after about a year of trying to scale up business, we touched about USD 130,000 in revenues. (That’s about INR. 1 Crore). I was so excited and shared this with my mom. She literally jumped out of her seat (or so I imagined since she was in a different city) and congratulated me in such a heartfelt manner, it was out of this world. I felt like I had accomplished something, I was motivated to do more and be more. She’s always been like that. Even today, when I managed a USD 5 Million business, she would say how this was an amazing feat, how she was proud of me (or is proud of me since this is recent). It just made my day.
I’m trying to be a cheer leader to others around me now. Especially my team. Any small achievement is worth celebrating. Why shouldn’t we, right?
I don’t know many around me who can openly support and root for others. It takes a whole lot of selfless courage to be this kind of a person. But I do feel this is one of the highest forms of service to other human beings, and even animals or plants. Just being their biggest fan. And that was Lesson #4.
Well, in summary
I do believe that I am not someone who operates from a position of love or care for others (unlike my mother), but what I’ve tried to imbibe from my mother and how she’s led her life, has slowly developed empathy towards fellow human beings and a sense of work-ethic within me. A core sense of duty towards mankind, and towards the under privileged. Her practical teachings push me to do things in a certain manner that would otherwise not be possible.
So in summary, here are the four lessons:
Duty, Karma and Diligence is the essence of a life well lived.
Money is important, but not the most important. A mindful outlook is all that matters in monetary decisions.
Always choose to push the envelope and move out of the comfort zone. There is no long term comfort within it.
Cheer your fellow-beings. They need it (and so do you).