The 39th Lesson

Life’s passing by too fast, or so it seems. I complete 39 years in my present state of existence today. That’s 14,245 days or around 57% of the average life expectancy of an Indian male.

While spiritualists would want me to believe that I have existed from anadi (before the beginning of cosmos), and will exist till ananta (infinity), I see thirty-nine years as a good enough time to find some meaning in one’s life. At least, my rapidly greying hair and receding hairline help me realize that.

Now, while it amazes me that I’ve been around that long — I feel like I’ve barely begun.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about my birthday, but as always, it has given me an opportunity to reflect.

So, like I have done over the past three years – see here, here, and here – let me share one of the key life lessons that have guided my life over the years, and two small but wonderful books that have brought this lesson to fore every time I have read them, including when I read them this year.

The first book is Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which is a story about following your dreams even when they go against the grain. It’s about making the most of the life you have been given.

In the book, the author uses the metaphor of seagulls flying to demonstrate that if we follow our dreams and achieve our dream goals, we too can soar.

The title character, Jonathan, is banished from his flock because his innovations in flight challenge the flock’s norms. He is branded as an outcast, which leads him to spend his years in solitude developing his talents and broadening his awareness.

He enjoys a rich life in exile, whose joys he is unable to share with other gulls. But in that period of reflection, he discovers that boredom, fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he ends up living a long fine life.

One of the profound lessons I’ve learned from Jonathan’s story is how essential it is to release our belief in our own limits. Leaving our minds and hearts open leaves our minds and hearts open – to grow.

The second book I re-read recently, which added to this belief of challenging our limits if we want to grow in life, was Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception.

In this book, Seth writes about the story of Icarus, whose father Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son to fly out of a prison they were captivated in.

Daedalus tried his wings first, but before taking off from the island, warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea, but to follow his path of flight. However, overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax.

Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms, and so he fell into the sea.

The Icarus myth is often used as an example of when hubris or over-confidence – of flying too high – can go badly wrong.

However, Seth, in his book, points out that there is another part of the story – Icarus’s father Daedalus also told his son not to fly too low as the water could also damage his wings.

As per Seth – “Society has altered the myth, encouraging us to forget the part about the sea, and created a culture where we constantly remind one another about the dangers of standing up, standing out, and making a ruckus.”

However, he writes, settling for too little is “a far more common failing”.

You see, like Jonathan did and what Daedalus advised Icarus, we all have the potential to do great work in life. However, to do so, we need to leave our comfort zones – to fly closer to the sun and to fail sometimes.

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

Looking from another angle, if you’re hitting bulls-eye every time, maybe you’re standing too close to the target.

Like when it comes to investing, I have a long list of great stocks that I did not buy or sold early, for a simple reason that I feared taking some risk. But since these errors of omission won’t show up in my profit and loss account, I often ignored them.

The reality is that our errors of omission – not taking risks, not flying high and close to the sun – can be costlier than the errors of commission – taking risks, flying too close to the waters.

Thankfully, what I omitted – taking risks – in my investing life, I committed to my work life, and that led me to quit my job to pursue my passion six years back.

Arthur Koestler put it so well – “If the Creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he certainly would have meant for us to stick it out.”

So, I moved out of my comfort zone, stuck my neck out, and took some risks. I don’t know whether it has paid off well, given that I’ve been just six years into it. But the risks I took have brought me contentment and enough happiness. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

I can just imagine how our world would look like if more people moved out of their comfort zones – in life, investing, everywhere – and took risks to change their and others’ lives.

As I race towards forty, I remain more hopeful than ever.

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