When success finally comes our way, how often do we look back and think about the path that delivered the success? Most often we claim our recognitions as – “I have worked really hard and it has finally paid off!” or “I am glad my degree and qualifications got me here”. None of that can be denied. But a lot goes behind attaining that degree or the qualification and the success.
How about mentorship? Many of us have had mentors who genuinely helped, supported, and sponsored us, and even made introductions that have opened doors. But very rarely do we go back and thank them for those – the unpaid work and the time that they have invested.
Today I want to look back and take a moment to thank a few of the most significant people who put me on this path, I will start with the one who is foremost on my mind.
My Ph.D. advisor, Prof Chi-Wang Shu, is a globally known mathematician who had a scientific problem named after him at the very beginning of his career ( Also, his Erdos number is 3!). As a first-year Ph.D. student, I didn’t think I was good enough and would pass the Ph.D. qualifiers to start my dissertation under him. The classes I took, the grades that I worked day and night for, seminars with which I filled my free hours – were all to make sure I earned my spot as his student. But the three and a half years that he guided me through my dissertation and the decade of guidance thereafter, have taught me lessons beyond scientific knowledge. Lessons that I have learned from him, I follow to date.
- Perfection and the necessity to work hard: Our first two years at Brown were not easy. We had to complete our coursework, pass one of the most difficult Ph.D. qualifiers (2 days of proving theorems in front of 4 mathematicians can be a tiny bit nerve-wracking) and come up with a novel topic for our dissertations. Needless to say, we worked very very hard. We would only take an hour or two off to go back to our dorms in the evenings, eat dinner and head back to our basement offices to keep studying. Often I would come out of my dungeon office after midnight and sleepily look up to our beautiful department building next door – and most nights the light in the corner office would be on. Prof. Shu, we knew, was working on a new problem. [Just a small note: Prof Shu is on his 472nd paper as of today, something of a record in the mathematical world].
This is a learning I have used till date. At Serein, we often go through multiple versions of a report but we only send it to a client once every single mistake has been corrected. Chryslynn and I have a very interesting habit of dissecting tough client conversations or workshops that we conduct and go through each tough question. Until we reach a point where we are happy with our approach to each question, we do not stop discussing, researching, and learning.
- It’s ok to make mistakes: This is often one of the most difficult exercises as a leader or mentor. Especially in a business that is driven by clients, it’s imperative that projects get delivered without a glitch. But we are human and we make mistakes. In my team, I have always tried to give a berth to every person who has made a mistake – small or big. For me, a workplace is only safe when you have made a mistake and you feel comfortable enough to own up to it and find a solution for it. I have learned this by making my own mistakes. My numerical analysis code had a simple yet persistent bug that was showing erroneous results and was completely befuddling my astrophysicist collaborators. When I found the bug after a sleepless week, I was mortified. But my advisor is the one who told me that it was ok to inform our collaborators that we have found the problem and more importantly that we have found a solution. With that, I realised that the space to make mistakes and the drive to find a solution is often more motivating than the reprimands.
- Having one’s back: People often find it funny how my academic siblings ( a term for students who have the same dissertation advisor) have an informal bond. Anytime, anywhere one person needs help, someone is always there to call. It was only later on I realised that this strong sense of support system was due to our advisor – our common thread. We all learned how to collaborate without competition from him. This is a value I have tried to foster amongst my team, it’s always better to speak up for one’s colleague and have a united front than to seek divided attention. There are benefits to it too – this unified front often makes a client have more faith in the collective expertise of the whole team as opposed to an individual. Speaking up for another person isn’t easy but with deliberate practice, it can be done.
I think I can go on about all the things that I have learned over the past decade, but for now, I will thank all my mentors for having faith in us starry-eyed youngsters and for investing their valuable time. I hope to do the same for my mentees and the next generation as much as I can.