Survival Tips
A candid and well-written autobiography with many original insights, especially for young people at the threshold of a professional life.
Often enough we have caricatured the image of a modern businessman. He is that narrow, one-dimensional and greedy individual who is prepared to cheat, bribe and cut corners to maximise his profit. Personally, he might profess honesty and integrity, but he seems to have no choice because everyone else in business is doing that to survive and keep ahead in competition. Being unethical seems inevitable in business life and is built into the very nature of business. Survival i nstinct and circumstantial vulnerability are therefore accepted to be the two chief attributes of a successful businessman.
Sunil Robert’s I Will Survive can be read as a corrective rejoinder to this standard, commonly accepted image. It is a candid, heart-warming and well-written autobiography with many original insights, especially for young people at the threshold of a professional life. It is skilfully interspersed with humour, personal anecdotes, and episodes to tell the story of a person who overcame all odds to turn out to be a successful business professional. The book also contains a number of principles and practical tips, derived from the author’s own life, helpful to anyone struggling with personal or career issues.
The relevance of this book and the life it portrays hardly needs to be emphasised. For those of us who come from a modest background and upbringing and have our own share of struggles, adversities and battles to go through, there are two options. One is to wait and watch for things to happen to us. The other is to do what Robert says he did: work hard, convert obstacles into opportunities, weaknesses into strengths, misfortunes into milestones, troubles into triumphs. “If life throws you a lemon,” says Robert, “don’t rant and rave. Make lemonade, set up a lemonade stand, and write about it.” He also advises: “Life is full of chances. Wake up and grab them! Don’t wait for opportunity to come knocking. Keep a sharp lookout for chances, and if you can’t find any, invent them yourself.”
More significantly, Robert’s memoir makes the case for moving away from a one-sided model of human being. Just as a caricature is an exaggeration of one feature of a person and falsely taking that to be the whole person would be a distortion, the view that people engaged in business are driven solely by survival instinct, competition and profit is a distortion.
People, including hard-nosed, profit-driven capitalists, are multidimensional beings driven by a wide range of interests, emotions and priorities. Among other things reputation, self-esteem, entrepreneurship, service, creativity, job satisfaction, networking and community welfare are equally compelling motives why people work or engage in business.
Robert prefers to uphold this multidimensional view: “Minting money or making a difference?… I believe that those who define their work purely through economic terms are missing the pleasure of working. Often some of the most satisfying moments in life are unrelated to money. The adrenaline rush of meeting a crucial deadline, the thrill of pulling off a project against odds, and the surge of victory all add up to something far more worthwhile.”
One important question, however, remains unresolved in Robert’s narration. This concerns the general interpretative framework that the author has adopted to tell his elegant, beautiful and humane story. As indicated in the title of the book, the framework that is used is a Darwinian one: the will to survive.
This is reinforced by the metaphor of the “warrior” that is used in the subtitle: Comeback Stories of a Corporate Warrior. We can understand that the idea of “survival” and of being a “warrior” in the battlefield resonates quite well with the business world where cut-throat competition and winning at any cost are the order of the day. But does this not undermine Robert’s positive message and give the impression of propagating the doctrine of economic reductionism? Human beings certainly compete for survival, and yet the very same human beings are also capable of cooperation, support and building networks to live meaningful lives.
There is plenty of evidence in the book to show why Robert’s memoir should be placed in another perspective. When one reads through this book, particularly Chapter 6, “Rags to Relationships”, what emerges is the image of a person who refuses to play the survival game. He seeks to transcend this mundane representation to espouse a “human” perspective. “It pays to be a gentleman. I always believed I ought to be a fine human being in the competitive, corporate world where it is supposed to be a dog-eat-dog arena.” He also affirms: “The more I learnt about life, the more convinced I became that it is essential to ‘succeed’ as a human being before you can really succeed at anything else.” Moreover, Robert exhorts every business professional to a have a personal life plan that prioritises several important factors such as family, friends, career development and spiritual well-being. Without a life plan, he warns, one is likely to lose a sense of purpose and balance. “What is the point in rising rapidly in your career but being unable to spend time with the ones that matter?” he asks.
So, it appears that instead of a will-to-survive framework, the will-to-meaning framework proposed by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist and founder of logotherapy, is more appropriate for Robert’s memoir. Frankl notes that those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how”. In this perspective, human beings’ main motivation for living is not just the will to survive but also the will to find meaning in life.
Human beings are not just trying to survive like other animals; the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning under all circumstances, even amidst the most miserable adversities and setbacks. It is therefore more coherent to think that what has brought Robert thus far in his life’s journey is not merely the survival instinct. It is a higher will – the tenacity, hope, courage and optimism to find meaning in life for himself, his family, colleagues and others. And this is precisely why his life can be an inspiration to others.
John M. Alexander
Originally Published in – Frontline
Date: 13-26 Mar, 2010
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