By Life Positive July 2002 A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the newly elected President of the Indian republic has come to represent to many of his countrymen the best aspects of Indian life. Born in 1931, the son of a little educated boat owner in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu (India), he had an unparalleled career as a defense scientist, culminating in the country’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. As chief of the country’s defense research and development programme, Abdul Kalam demonstrated the great potential for dynamism and innovation that existed in seemingly moribund research establishments. In his autobiography Wings of Fire (Universities Press) published in 1999, he relates how he made it happen. And as the passages from the book reproduced here show, he gives some lessons in living and achieving and growing particularly aimed at the youth. I often read Khalil Gibran, and always find his words full of wisdom. ‘Bread baked without love is a bitter bread that feeds but half a man’s hunger,’-those who cannot work with their hearts achieve but a hollow, half-hearted success that breeds bitterness all around. If you are a writer who would secretly prefer to be a lawyer or a doctor, your written words will feed but half the hunger of your readers; if you are a teacher who would rather be a businessman, your instructions will meet but half the need for knowledge of your students; if you are a scientist who hates science, your performance will satisfy but half the needs of your mission. I have used the word ‘flow’ at many places without really elaborating its meaning. What is this flow? And what are these joys? I could call them moments of magic. I see an analogy between these moments and the high that you experience when you play badminton or go jogging. Flow is a sensation we experience when we act with total involvement. During flow, action follows action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention on the part of the worker. There is no hurry; there are no distracting demands on one’s attention. The past and the future disappear. So does the distinction between self and the activity. Dr Brahm Prakash not only reinforced the traits that I had acquired from Prof. Sarabhai, but also helped me give them new dimensions. He always cautioned me against haste. ‘Big scientific projects are like mountains, which should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without urgency. The reality of your own nature should determine your speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become tense and high-strung, slow down. You should climb the mountain in a state of equilibrium. When each task of your project is not just a means to an end but a unique event in itself, then you are doing it well,’ he would tell me. The echo of Dr Brahm Prakash’s advice could be heard in Emerson’s poem on Brahma: If the red slayer think he slays, Or, if the slain think he is slain, They know not well, the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. To live only for some unknown future is superficial. It is like climbing a mountain to reach the peak without experiencing its sides. The sides of the mountain sustain life, not the peak. This is where things grow, experience is gained, and technologies are mastered. The importance of the peak lies only in the fact that it defines the sides. So I went on towards the top, but always experiencing the sides. I had a long way to go but I was in no hurry. I went in little steps just one step after another but each step towards the top. Looking back on my days as a young scientist, I am aware that one of the most constant and powerful urge I experienced was my desire to be more than what I was at that moment. I desired to feel more, learn more, express more. I desired to grow, improve, purify, expand. I never used any outside influence to advance my career. All I had was the inner urge to seek more within myself. The key to my motivation has always been to look at how far I had still to go rather than how far I had come. After all, what is life but a mixture of unsolved problems, ambiguous victories, and amorphous defeats? The trouble is that we often merely analyze life instead of dealing with it. People dissect their failures for causes and effects, but seldom deal with them and gain experience to master them and thereby avoid their recurrence. This is my belief: that through difficulties and problems God gives us the opportunity to grow. So when your hopes and dreams and goals are dashed, search among the wreckage, you may find a golden opportunity hidden in the ruins. In sharing with you the story of my struggle to become a person, I have perhaps tried to give you some insight into this journey. I hope it will equip at least a few young people to stand up to the authoritarianism in our society. A characteristic feature of this social authoritarianism is its insidious ability to addict people to the endless pursuit of external rewards, wealth, prestige, position, promotion, approval of one’s lifestyle by others, ceremonial honors, and status symbols of all kinds… The culture of working for material possessions and rewards must be discarded… Your willingness to use your own inner resources to invest your life, especially your imagination, will bring you success. When you undertake a task from your own uniquely individual standpoint, you will become a person. You, me, everyone on this planet is sent free by Him to cultivate all the creative potential within us and live at peace with our own conscience. We differ in the way we make our choices and evolve our destiny. Life is a difficult game. You can win it only by retaining your birthright to be a person. And to retain this right, you will have to be willing to take the social or external risks involved in ignoring pressures to do things the way others say they should be done. Extracted with permission from Wings of Fire: An Autobiography by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with Arun Tiwari, Universities Press (India) Limited.
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