Sharing knowledge with anyone who wants to learn
One of the most crushing experiences of my childhood in India inspired the birth of [email protected], the online business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. With over 3.5 million users reading its articles and listening to its podcasts, [email protected] is a global network of publications, with dedicated sections focusing on the U.S., India, China, Israel, the Middle East, Spain and Portugal.
From its inception, I was passionate about knowledge being made available via [email protected]–for free–for anyone who wants to learn. Through my twenty-five years at Wharton, I never forgot what it felt like as a child for one of our family friends to tell me prominent educational institutions like Wharton were not for me. I still remember what it felt like to be told I was not good enough to go to an elite university. This demoralizing incident from the past has fed my passion to share knowledge with anyone who wants to learn. It drives me every day.
You cannot really understand my perspective on [email protected] unless you understand Manorama Bhatt, my grandmother. Ma inspires me every day; I think about her constantly. I am in awe of her determination, her kindness and gentleness. Ma and my grandfather Jayantkumar Bhatt raised me because my mother was ill when I was a baby. I am what I am because of them.
Manorama Bhatt, or Ma to her grandchildren, was born in 1908 in a small town called Amreli in Gujarat in western India. She married my grandfather when she was ten years old and he was sixteen, though they did not live together as a couple until later. She lived until she was ninety-eight. Ma’s dad was a schoolteacher, so she and her sister went to school every day, unlike most girls in India at the time. They were the only girls in a class filled with boys.
When Ma was in her early twenties, my grandfather received a scholarship from Bhavnagar state, one of 500 princely kingdoms in India during British rule, to do his PhD on the role of skepticism in the development of knowledge, at University College in London.
‘Maybe I can go with you to study as well?’ Ma suggested.
‘I’d love to take you,’ Dada said, ‘but my scholarship’s a pittance, we can’t afford it.’
‘What if I get one too?’ A look of steely determination crossed Ma’s face.
‘How are you going to get a scholarship?’ Dada wanted Ma to join him, but he knew their financial resources would not stretch far enough for them both to study in the United Kingdom.
‘I’ll go to the King’s palace and ask the Prime Minister to give me one.’ In Ma’s mind, the matter was closed. She was on her way.
Ma asked her family if one of them would accompany her to the palace of the king of Bhavnagar, but they all said ‘no.’ Finally, one of her uncles offered to go with her in the horse carriage to the end of the street. He said he would wait for her while she ventured inside. When they arrived at the palace, Ma waved goodbye to her uncle then approached the gate, her heart racing.
‘I’m here to meet Sir Prabhashankar Pattani,’ Ma said to the security guard, looking directly into his eyes. Sir Prabhashankar Pattani, who had funded the education of many Indian students at schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the Prime Minister or Diwan of Bhavnagar.
‘Do you have an appointment?’ the security guard said.
‘No, but I urgently need to see him.’ Ma was not leaving until she had accomplished her mission.
‘You need to go home now. You can’t see him.’ The security guard urged Ma to leave, but she refused to go. He raised his voice.
Sir Pattani was entertaining some visitors in the garden when he heard the ruckus at the gate.
He called out to the guard. ‘What’s going on?’
‘A young woman is here to see you. She doesn’t have an appointment and insists she has to speak with you.’
‘Call her here.’ The Prime Minister excused himself from his conversation with two men.
The security guard told Ma to walk across the lawn to Sir Prabhashankar Pattani.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’
‘My husband has a scholarship to study in London,’ Ma said. ‘I’m here to ask you for one so I can go with him. I want to study too.’
‘Well, young lady. Let’s assume I give you a small scholarship,’ the Prime Minister teased. ‘What’s the guarantee you’ll use it to study? You might just have a good time. You could go shopping, have fun. You’re young.’
‘I know you go to London quite often for meetings and conferences,’ she said. ‘Next time you visit London why don’t you visit us; I’ll cook you an Indian meal. You can ask me how my studies are going, and I’ll tell you.’
Sir Prabhashankar Pattani was so impressed with Ma’s gumption, he gave her a few pounds. Funded by their scholarships, my grandparents traveled to London.
While Dada worked on his doctorate, Ma studied early childhood education with Maria Montessori, famous for her innovative ideas in this field. When my grandfather finished his doctorate they returned to India, then my grandmother started a Montessori school in Bombay, today known as Mumbai. By far, my most treasured possession is a sepia photograph of Ma and Maria Montessori in the 1930s in London, which she gave me before she passed away. I feel enveloped in her love every time I look at it. It is a reminder of her grit and determination to pursue knowledge. It inspires me every day.
A crushing conversation
When I was young, I could not decide what career to pursue. Ma took me to a family friend who was a senior banker in the Reserve Bank of India. He asked me what I would like to do.
‘I’d like to study economics,’ I said, ‘but I’m not sure where to study.’
Our friend smiled. ‘Economics is an excellent field to study.’
‘I’ve heard there are two places in the world that are very good to learn economics, The London School of Economics and The Wharton School in Philadelphia,’ I said.
He furrowed his brow. ‘A place like Wharton is for people who are very rich or very smart.’
‘I thought if I could study at one of these two schools it would be a wonderful thing to do,’ I added, ignoring his inference.
‘You should be more realistic, more modest in your expectations and ambitions,’ he advised. ‘Why don’t you find something within your grasp?’
Ma said nothing, but she saw my crumpled shoulders. As we left his house, she turned to me, her eyes smiling.
‘He doesn’t know you. I know you; I know that if you decide you want to go to Wharton, you’ll get there someday.’ And the matter was closed, just as it was over sixty years ago when Ma set out to study in England.
On the road to Wharton
I was a journalist for almost 45 years. I started as a trainee journalist at the Times of India group in April 1979, initially working for India’s largest business daily, The Economic Times, and then for Business World, which was the country’s second largest business magazine.
In late 1989, I traveled to Montreal to cover the World Energy Congress for Business World. While there I heard that George Taber, the editor of a new publication, Business for Central New Jersey, was looking to recruit journalists. I called George the same day and was surprised to discover he was the former business editor of Time Magazine. George and the Vice-President of Government Affairs for Time Inc., Don Wilson, had just started Business for Central New Jersey, they were running it with Time Magazine standards. During our conversation George suggested I write a trial story about City Savings Bank, which was the largest savings and loan bank in New Jersey. It had recently announced its third quarter results—a $150M loss. I did not understand what a savings and loan was or what the thrift industry was going through because of its deregulation in the 1980s, but I happily accepted the opportunity.
Early the next morning I spoke to the public relations manager at the bank and he gave me his version of what had gone wrong and why the company was in trouble. Still, I realized I needed an external perspective, so I called the local university, Rutgers. There I found a finance professor who had followed the deregulation of the savings and loan industry. He knew why they had made so many bad loans. I think he realized within the first five minutes of our conversation I was completely out of my depth on this topic.
‘Do you know what’s going on in the industry?’ he said.
‘No, I’ve just arrived from India,’ I admitted, anxious he would end the call before I had a chance to discover what was going on in the savings and loan industry.
The finance professor ended up giving me a one-hour lecture on the thrift industry. I sat at the kitchen table straight after the conversation and wrote the 1,000-word story without stopping for a break. I based my story on what I had heard from the bank, but mostly on the analysis of the Rutgers professor. Later that day, I gave the story to George.
‘I can’t believe this story is written by someone who’s been in the country for only two weeks,’ George said.
Based on my story, George offered me a job as a staff writer. Before he could hire me, he had to sponsor me for an H1 visa, and then later for a Green Card. The following year, in 1991, George sent me to Wharton to do a business course for journalists. The vibrant discussion in the classroom captivated me. It was an incredible educational experience and so different from my postgraduate course in India, which had comprised formal lectures.
From then on issues whenever I wrote stories for the magazine, or freelance pieces for national publications like The New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer, I contacted the Wharton professors for their views. In 1997 someone from Wharton contacted me and asked whether I would like to join Wharton to set up a business magazine for the school. He told me Wharton lacked a comparable publication to the eighty-year-old Harvard Business Review, which was thriving.
I could not decide about what to do. It was like my heart was pulling me in one direction and my head in another. I tossed and turned in bed every night and stopped eating. My relationship with George went way beyond an editor or journalist one. George and his wife Jean treated Hema and I like family. It was very hard for me to consider leaving without George’s permission and blessing. At the same time, I was excited about the possibility of creating a new publication for Wharton. I also remembered my grandmother’s words from years ago, and her prediction about me going to Wharton one day.
I still remember early one morning George and I both pulled up in the parking lot at the same time.
‘I’ve not slept all night,’ George said. ‘I’ve been thinking about you. I think you should take the Wharton job. You should go because if you don’t, you’ll never know if it’s the right decision.’
So with George’s blessing, I felt free to go to Wharton. It is rare in life to find a mentor who not only has a profound impact on you professionally—he taught me almost everything I know about journalism, writing and editing—but also has such a caring heart. It is not often you find a mentor who cares about you so much they will let you leave to pursue another opportunity.
I started at Wharton in February 1998. Fortunately for me, I was not told what to do; I was asked what to do. That made all the difference. I did not know what type of publication to launch, so spent the first couple of months meeting with about forty professors. I asked them what style of magazine would best meet the school’s goals. The first ten to fifteen professors I met with gave me ten to fifteen different opinions. However, one of them, Jitendra Singh, a professor in the Management Department, asked a pivotal question. ‘How are you going to position this publication relative to Harvard Business Review?’
This question made me realize what we needed was something we could describe in one sentence as being unique. Still, I still did not yet know what that was. One day soon after, when the dotcom boom was at its peak, I heard a speech by Jim Cramer, a stock analyst who founded an online publication, The Street.Com. He was speaking at a media conference.
‘I’ve torn up my subscription to Business Week,’ Jim said. ‘Why would I pay for a print magazine when I can read it free online? Printing and mailing comprise seventy per cent of the production cost of a publication.’
My skin tingled; an idea hatched in my mind as Jim Cramer spoke about the extraordinary possibilities awaiting online publishers.
Jim talked about the fact that online publications can have global distribution and its editor can know instantly which articles the readers prefer. Print publications do not know the readership of individual stories, and their advertisers do not know how many people see their advertisements. But online advertisers can measure every click on every advertisement.
That is when the light bulb exploded in my head. It was one of those truly life-changing insights that happen so rarely.
‘Why doesn’t Wharton become the first top-tier business school to have an online-only business journal,’ I thought. ‘Let’s forget about print; let’s launch an online-only journal.’
That day I wrote a fourteen-page proposal late into the evening proposing I launch an online journal named [email protected] I was so excited I ended up staring at the bedroom ceiling all night instead of sleeping. The next morning, I traveled to work well before sunrise to show it to my colleagues. While many of them were supportive, some were initially not convinced that an online-only publication was the way to go. After all, Wharton had hired me to launch a print publication. While I was trying to figure out how to make the case for the online journal, one colleague gave me invaluable advice.
‘You know,’ he said. ‘At Wharton, things occur when enough professors want it to happen, so since you’re meeting with professors anyway, why don’t you ask them what they think of an online journal?’
So that is what I did. During the next couple of months, a groundswell of support built for a business portal, and soon there was a consensus that this was what we should do. Bob Mittelstaedt, who was the Vice Dean of External Affairs and Executive Education, supported the idea, and he offered me resources to build the portal. That is how the school came to embrace the idea of [email protected].
I went through several twists and turns along the way, one of them being forecasting uptake while I was writing the business plan. We thought in Year One we would secure, at best, 3,000 subscribers, in Year Two possibly 6,000 and by Year Three, maybe 10,000. The truth is these were all guestimates; I had no idea the likely uptake of our publication.
Our team built [email protected], and we launched it on 27 May 1999. Of course, all my projections were wrong. Although the publication was free, subscribers had to sign up to read it—and in the first forty-eight hours, we had 800 registered users in thirty-three countries. We reached the 3,000-subscriber target at the end of the first three weeks. We ended our first year with 33,000 subscribers. The following year we added another 66,000, and it kept growing from there. In 2018 we had 3.5 million users around the world.
Listening and learning
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in the early days of [email protected] was the importance of listening. Having grown up in the world of print journalism, I had become used to believing that an editor’s judgment is the proxy for what readers are interested in. I felt if the editor found something interesting, then readers would want to read it. In the print world, there is no direct way to accurately test this belief—there is no way to measure which stories appeal most to readers. I found to my surprise and delight that online journalism changes this model completely—any editorial decision you make can be tested immediately through reader feedback. It is instant, precise, sometimes brutal.
This point was driven home to me with a particular story. It was late one Tuesday night; I was on deadline and one story short. I remembered Stuart Friedman, a Wharton professor, had sent me a piece on work-life balance that was sitting in my bottom drawer. When I had received it, I had glanced at it but put it away, thinking the topic was too motherhood for our readers—too apple pie. I wondered what new under the sun there was to say about it, apart from what we all know—that it is important to live a more balanced life. I had set it aside as I thought there were much more substantive topics to write about. But now I was stuck. I decided to take a risk. I retrieved the article from the drawer, quickly edited it, gave it a headline and we published it later that night.
The next morning, I caught an early morning flight to Boston for a meeting, so did not have time to check readership of the latest edition. The analysts I met in Boston greeted me with extraordinary enthusiasm for eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning.
‘Your story on work-life balance was fascinating,’ an analyst said.
The others joined in, all trying to talk at once.
An older analyst cut across everyone. ‘We’ve sent it to our manager to let him know we all need more work-life balance than we’re getting.’
As the excited chatter about the article continued, this reaction stunned me. In my mind, it was one of the more predictable stories, but I was wrong. When I got back to Philadelphia and looked at the web traffic for the edition, this story was the most popular by a factor of two or three. I realized the reason for its popularity was because everyone, no matter how successful, is constantly grappling with how to manage workload pressures and do a good job, but balance it with family responsibilities, commitments and leisure activities. Everyone is looking for a solution to this issue.
The most important lesson for me was that one blessing of online journalism is that it helps you maintain your humility. It stops your editorial ego from becoming too big and gives every editor the opportunity to learn about what readers are interested in. From that standpoint, I realized one of the most important functions of [email protected] is not what Wharton can tell the world about business, but what the world can tell Wharton about what is relevant. After that experience, my colleagues and I constantly try to listen to our audience to understand the topics of most interest to them. We learn from our audience and then we tailor our editorial content to help them learn what they want to learn.
A few years later, Wharton appointed me as a senior fellow in its Management Department.
Reaching new audiences
I remember in 2002, a Wharton alumnus came to see me. His name is Felipe Vergara, and he is from Colombia. He was working in New York as a consultant.
‘What you are doing is tremendous,’ Felipe said, ‘explaining the implications of Wharton’s research for professionals and businesspeople, analyzing current business issues and publishing interviews with CEOs. You realize there’s nothing like this available in Spanish or Portuguese. Would you be interested in producing [email protected] in Spanish?’
‘Sure, I think it’s interesting to consider and I would be happy to take the idea to the school for approval,’ I replied, ‘but we’ll need a partner who can co-invest with us.’
‘Okay. Leave it with me,’ Felipe said as he slid his laptop into its leather bag and pushed the chair back.
Felipe returned six months later, accompanied by Javier Sagi-Vela, an executive from Banco Santander, one of the largest banks in Spain. Banco Santander had an extensive banking business across Latin America and Portugal, and it agreed to partner with us to publish a Spanish edition. So did the Spanish university network, Universia. We launched the new editions in Madrid in early 2003. Pat Harker, who was Wharton’s Dean, traveled to Madrid to launch it with Emilio Botin, Santander’s CEO. As soon as the Dean returned to Philadelphia from the Madrid event he met with our fundraising director.
‘Let’s do this in Chinese next!’ His enthusiasm was contagious. Jeff Sheehan, who was the Associate Dean for International Affairs, swung into action the same day and over time he along with colleagues from Wharton External Affairs raised the funds we needed to publish [email protected] in Chinese.
We started building the site in 2004, then launched it in simplified and traditional Chinese in Shanghai in March 2005. Once the Chinese site was up and running I got excited about trying to do something in India. We decided to announce our intention to launch an Indian site at a Wharton forum in Mumbai in early 2006.
As we prepared for this announcement, I heard the heartbreaking news that Ma was critically ill. I went to India to stay with her at the hospital and was very happy to spend precious time with her in the few weeks before she left us. Sadly, the day before we announced our plans for the Indian site, she passed away. My efforts to share knowledge at Wharton were a matter of great pride to Ma. She was particularly happy that we were planning to launch [email protected] in India.
We launched the Indian site in November 2006, followed by one in Arabic in 2010 and an Israeli site in 2012. That is how [email protected] evolved into a global network of different sites with the common goal of making knowledge free for anyone who wants to learn.
The [email protected] team wanted to share its learnings with other business schools and universities, so they too could share with their audiences the knowledge created by their professors. Our first partner in this program was Emory University – we helped the Emory team set up [email protected] We later assisted WP Carey School at Arizona State University to launch [email protected], Singapore National University to set up [email protected] and the Australian School of Business in Sydney to launch [email protected]. It gave me great joy to see knowledge being spread around the world in this way.
Sharing knowledge with high school students
On our fifth anniversary, [email protected]’s Advisory Board held its annual meeting. As always, we had a lively discussion as we explored ways of growing [email protected] by launching in new countries and languages. During the meeting Terry Suppers, an executive from GE Capital, one of our corporate sponsors, raised his hand to speak.
‘Why are you thinking of growth just in terms of new countries and new languages?’ he said. ‘Have you thought of creating something for high school students?’
You could hear a pin drop in the seminar room. I loved the idea the first time I heard it, but in the following years it was challenging to raise funds to finance the project. In early 2008, we believed we had the resources we needed, so the team planned for a launch in 2009. My colleagues Robbie Shell and Diana Drake worked very hard to build the prototype with a lot of help from our IT director Sanjay Modi. However, history got in the way with the massive financial crisis of September 2008 and our funding partner went out of existence. It left us without financial support, but we did not give up.
The team built a prototype to show to potential partners. Then in 2010, Faquiry Diaz Cala, a Wharton alumnus based in Miami, and Boris Hirmas, his business partner, came forward to support the creation of [email protected] High School. Mauro Guillen, director of the Lauder Institute at Wharton, also helped enormously in various ways, including finding some ways to get funding. With their support, and also that of Wharton’s Undergraduate Division, we got our plans for the high school edition back on track.
We launched [email protected] High School in March 2011 and with 250,000 registered users, today it is the fastest growing node of the network. I never imagined it would become so popular. What is fascinating about [email protected] High School is that it allows us to take part in education and publishing. We have a stock market competition that started with five high schools in Philadelphia and in 2018 had over 700 teams competing in it. It has grown from a local to a regional to a national to an international competition in the space of a few years.
The University of Pennsylvania alumnus who came up with the design for the stock market competition helped us to connect with a network of PhD students who developed 400 lesson plans for high school teachers to use to teach business, finance, marketing and management. In trying to figure how to promote the lesson plans and encourage teachers to use them, we launched a seminar for high school teachers based on Wharton’s course for business journalists that George sent me to in 1991. We searched for a partner who could help us develop it—and we were lucky to partner with PWC.
The [email protected] High School seminars for high school educators started with 150 teachers in Philadelphia, soon expanded to San Francisco and then to Chicago. It ran for five years. Over the course of the program, 1,200 high school teachers took part in it. The teachers appreciated the way the program exposed them to exciting new models of teaching business. They also loved the opportunity it gives them to build new networks among their peers. My colleagues Diana Drake and Kara Dunn, supported by our entire team, were primarily responsible for this program’s success.
The [email protected] High School team also hosts summer camps for high school students in collaboration with the Indian student publication, BrainGain Magazine. The Global Young Leaders’ Academy started a few years ago with thirty students. By 2018, thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, we had 200 students taking part in it.
Launching new channels
A few years ago, the Wharton School partnered with Sirius XM, the largest satellite radio operation in the United States, which has over 30 million listeners. Wharton created its own radio channel—Sirius XM 111 Powered by The Wharton School. Wharton provides twenty-five per cent of the content for the channel, which amounts to two hours of content each day. The station has grown rapidly—we interview twenty-five to thirty guests every week for the radio show, and many of the interviews are converted into podcasts we share via [email protected] Collaboration between [email protected] and the radio station has driven dramatic growth of the network since its launch.
Everything was coming together very well, and I felt [email protected] would continue to grow. But as usual, I was wrong. On 17 May 2016, I met with an Indian journalist who was a former army officer—he wanted to write an article for [email protected] about corruption in India’s defense industry. I was very interested in his topic and had lunch with him at Penne Restaurant. After lunch I returned to my office to speak with a colleague. During our conversation I was conscious of a gradually increasing pain in my abdomen, but tried to ignore it, thinking it would go away. When the meeting ended, I was supposed to head over to Huntsman Hall to see a professor about a report on business ethics. But the pain became so unbearable I collapsed to the floor. I crawled into a colleague’s office and asked him to cancel my appointment with the professor. I also asked him to call the emergency medical personnel and an ambulance.
Illness is a brilliant teacher
The doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital discovered I had acute hemorrhaging pancreatitis—a gallstone was stuck in my pancreatic duct and my pancreas was imploding. The doctors intubated me and put me into a medically induced coma for several days. After seventeen days in hospital, I begged to leave to attend the high school graduation of our only daughter, Tara. I loved seeing Tara graduate, but a fever spiked two days later, so Hema took me to St Francis Hospital, which is close to home. A cyst the size of a soccer ball had formed around my pancreas. I could hardly stand or lie down, and every breath was a struggle. A helicopter airlifted me back to intensive care at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Later a doctor told me he thought there was an eighty per cent chance I would not survive. I stayed in intensive care for several days, then spent two weeks in the surgical ward, followed by more than a month in a rehabilitation center to build up my physical condition. I spent some three months in hospital and rehabilitation, from mid-March to mid-August 2016.
While at one level my illness was an ordeal, at another level it was a magnificent learning experience. There are at least three lessons I learned:
First, when you come up with an idea like [email protected], watch it grow over a twenty-year period and see it take on a life of its own, it is easy to develop the ‘Founder’s Illusion’—the belief that the founder’s presence is, if not indispensable, then at least essential, to the continuation of the project. But that belief is an illusion. I realized this vividly when I returned to Wharton after seven months of medical leave. During my absence, [email protected] continued without missing a beat, thanks to my talented and hard-working colleagues, especially Steve Guglielmi, the editorial director and other editors and writers. It was ‘business as usual’ for the team. That is exactly as it should be.
At a meeting in January 2017, a few days after I returned to work, a Wharton professor looked at me quizzically when I told him of my illness.
‘I didn’t realize you weren’t here,’ he said, a broad smile enveloping his face. He could have paid me no higher compliment.
Learning to celebrate your own impermanence can initially humble, but ultimately it is liberating. This experience taught me the [email protected] team is the right team, doing the right job, in the right way. It helped me learn I could disappear without warning and yet [email protected] and its mission would endure.
My second learning was that what you pay attention to in life is an act of choice. During my illness, I had absolutely no control over what was happening to my body. It was on autopilot and my most basic bodily functions occurred independently of me, resulting in several embarrassing accidents. In trying to reduce my anxiety about these events, a surgeon quipped: ‘It’s like a bomb’s gone off inside you.’ If I had focused on what was happening to me physically, I would probably have plummeted into a deep depression. However, I realized what you pay attention to in life is an act of choice. And so, I consciously chose to ignore what was going on in my body, instead focusing on how much love I was privileged to have in my life.
My wife Hema and daughter Tara visited me in the hospital every day, and my mother called from India each morning. Mike Gibbons, Wharton’s Deputy Dean, was astonishingly supportive, and he visited me in the hospital. My colleagues constantly sent flowers, books and cards. One colleague sent a Get-Well card every two weeks for months and months. I had known her for just one year and had never realized she had so much compassion. Complete strangers—doctors and nurses—looked after my every need at all hours of the day and night. I felt like there was a constant stream of love and care flowing toward me. So instead of worrying about what was happening to me physically—over which I had no control—I focused my attention on the love, kindness and compassion flowing toward me. That pulled me through.
I remember reading somewhere that in life pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I realized through my illness that this is true. There were weeks and weeks when I was in unbelievable pain, but I was not suffering. I would never have learned this precious distinction between pain and suffering if it were not for my illness.
The third lesson I learned through my illness was the vital need to focus on what is most important. When you are twenty per cent away from the edge, it is a good opportunity to think about what is most vital in life—what is most meaningful and what matters most. I had seven months to think about this. I remember reading a story at the time by Ajahn Brahm, a former British physics teacher who is now a Buddhist monk based in Perth, Australia. He tells a story about a young doctor whose first patient—a young mother—died. After sharing the tragic news with her family, he quit medicine.
The young doctor went to the monk and told him he was planning to give up his profession.
‘It’s fine if that’s really what you want to do,’ the monk said. ‘But tell me one thing. Why did you become a doctor?’
‘To cure my patients,’ the young doctor insisted.
‘That’s one thing you need to change,’ the monk said. ‘You don’t become a doctor to cure your patients. You become a doctor to care for your patients. Change one letter in what you’re saying—change the u to an a.’
A huge burden lifted from the doctor’s mind when he made that mental shift. When he thought his job was to cure patients it was all about him, but when he decided his role was to care for his patients, it was all about his patients. Once he started approaching every patient with the mindset, ‘How can I care for them?’ his passion for medicine returned.
This idea of caring applies not only to doctors, but to all of us. For me, my most essential responsibility, along with caring for my family and colleagues, is to care for our readers, our audience. It is critical to care for everyone around us and acting out of love—not out of fear and not out of greed. That is what matters most in life. My illness has been an amazing teacher because without it I would never have learned these lessons. I think Ma would probably have agreed.
This month I retired after running [email protected] for 22 years. I am so grateful to Wharton’s faculty, our corporate sponsors, our readers and especially the [email protected] team for more than two decades of collaboration and the opportunity to share knowledge for free with everyone who wants to learn.
Just before I stepped away from my role, a young colleague asked me a tough question. This essay is an attempt at an answer.
Want to Be Successful? What Does That Mean?
By Mukul Pandya
In February 1998, when I joined the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I had been a business journalist for almost 20 years. I had worked half of that time in India and the rest in the U.S. Wharton hired me to start a new publication featuring faculty research. The school runs one of the top MBA programs.
In May 1999, my colleagues and I launched [email protected], an online journal whose mission is to share knowledge—for free, at absolutely no cost to the consumer—from Wharton and other sources, with anyone who wanted to learn.
As the editor in chief, I was fortunate over the years to meet and interview well-known leaders from business and politics—such as Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel; Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE; Christine Lagarde, the former head of the International Monetary Fund; and India’s former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, among others. In many interviews with leaders, I often ended by asking the same question: How do you define success? Their responses contained a wide range of views. I was intrigued – and occasionally inspired—to hear many different opinions about what it means to be successful.
This month I retired after running [email protected] for 22 years. I consider myself lucky since I was able to pursue this career without earning an advanced degree in the U.S., which is the typical path for Indian professionals who migrate to America.
As it generally happens at such times, I received warm and congratulatory emails from friends and colleagues about my retiring. One message was from a young colleague named Don. He had joined the [email protected] team eight years ago, when he was, in his own words, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, fresh out of college with a terrible haircut.”
Don started out by doing administrative work, but as a gifted musician he soon gravitated toward creative work in the Wharton studio, helping to produce videos and podcasts. Having been present at many interviews, Don ended his email with these words: “I’ve heard you ask this question many times in the studio, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard you give an answer to it. So, I will ask you now: Given your years at Wharton, and even what you accomplished prior to starting [email protected], how would you define success?”
Don’s question turned the tables on me. For more than 40 years, I had tried to be a tough journalist asking challenging questions to all sorts of people. Now I was at the receiving end. Surprised that coming up with an answer was difficult, I struggled to respond. The more I reflected upon the question, the more I realized that the way I thought about success had changed a lot over the years.
When I was a boy, aged maybe around ten or eleven, I believed that success meant achieving a goal or task that someone—often my parents or teachers—had assigned. If I did it well, I got a reward. When I was in primary school in Mumbai, for example, I fell in love with the music of the Beatles and asked my parents if they would buy me a guitar. That was an expensive gift for a young boy in India. My parents, who were teachers, told me that if I did well in my exams, they would think about it.
I was good at languages and social sciences, but awful at math. Still, with determination fueled by a guitar, I slogged even harder. When the results were announced at the end of the academic year, I had the third highest marks in my class of forty-five students. In previous years, my score was generally among the top ten in my class, but never in the top three.
I got the guitar—and that was success! In those days, I measured success by yardsticks like good grades or prizes. The results were usually based on how much effort I had put in to achieve the goal. It was a narrow, self-centered view.
This approach continued through most of my college years and even in my early years as a journalist. In 1979, I started out at The Economic Times in Mumbai, after a B.A. in economics from Ruia College, Mumbai University. While working, I also completed an M.A. in economics from Mumbai University.
As a journalist, the yardstick of success changed from grades to the number of stories I could publish in prestigious publications or awards I won, but the self-centered approach continued. Over time, my stories were published in The New York Times, The Economist, TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Success was all about me and what I could achieve.
That perspective began to change when I had to manage a team. In 1988 I became a chief copy editor at Business World, a leading Indian business magazine, and I had to oversee a team of four copy editors. That was when I discovered that the self-centered view that had served me for so long was a handicap in this new context. If I continued to focus on myself, my success would be limited to what I could achieve on my own. If one thinks along these lines, it is difficult—no, impossible—to manage a team and lead it well. It was far better to give up some control and, instead, focus on what the team could achieve collectively.
Giving up control does not mean giving up responsibility; rather you still need to keep an eye on what is going on and step in to intervene if necessary. But most of the time, if you have the right group of colleagues, and they know a lot more than you about their fields, and you support them in pursuing what they are good at and what they love to do, you can achieve remarkable results.
As a result, in my mid-career years my view of success became less self-centered and more inclusive. Success was not just about me; it was also about the team—the team plus me. If the team succeeded in achieving its goals, we all succeeded. This approach served us well in [email protected], as our readership grew to millions, and the team grew larger.
But just when I thought I had found the mantra for success, life taught me how wrong I was. In May 2016, I was in a meeting in my office when I developed an unbearable pain in my belly. I fell to the floor, my colleagues called the emergency medical team, and I was rushed by ambulance to the Penn Medicine hospital. Fortunately, it is across the street from the building where I worked. Diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, I was hospitalized.
It turned out to be a serious illness with a long recovery. I was on medical leave for seven months during which I had little or no contact with my team. And I noticed something interesting: Though I had disappeared without a moment’s notice, the work at [email protected] continued without missing a beat.
I realized then that I suffered from the founder’s illusion – the belief that many founders have, whether they have created a project or a company. They start to believe just because they have led the creation of an enterprise, small or large, that their presence is essential — if not indispensable — to its continuation. That belief is often an illusion.
When I returned to the Penn campus, many professors whose research was featured in [email protected] did not even know that I had been away. Recognizing and coming to terms with my own impermanence was initially humbling, but ultimately it was liberating. I realized that even if I were not around, [email protected] would continue, and the mission of sharing knowledge would endure. If [email protected] had collapsed in my absence, that would have meant failure. The fact that it went on—and that it will go on after my retirement—spells success. Success is about the team without me. At the end of my formal career, this is the highest form of success I can imagine.
My perspective has not just changed—it has become the opposite of what it used to be. It has gone from viewing success as being all about me to not being about me at all—and that is just as it should be. When you commit yourself to an audacious goal like sharing knowledge for free with millions of people, that mission is just too large to be contained in the space of a single person’s career or even life. If the team continues to serve the mission even though you are gone, what greater success could there be?
As I wrote my response to Don, I was feeling immodestly pleased with myself for coming up with what I thought was a fresh point of view. But again, I was wrong and self-centered. What I thought was fresh is one of the oldest ideas about success. I suppose it is one of those enduring truths that each of us must learn and keep learning for ourselves in the context of our own lives. You see, at the end of a letter that a friend wrote when he moved from a prominent corporate job to a university, he included a poem written in 600 B.C.. The words of poet Lao Tzu—2620 years ago—expresses this perspective far better than I can today or ever could:
A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists,
Not so good when people obey and
Worst when they despise him.
“Fail to honor people
They fail to honor you;”
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done,
his aim fulfilled,
They will all say,
“We did this ourselves.”
May you be safe and happy. May you find your own road to success.
If you would like Share your life story to write your life story for you email: [email protected] or call Gabriella on 0408 256 381.