Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

“It’s okay to chase impossible trains. Keep running and someday, someone will throw you into it”

Secret Diary of Vineet Nayar — Part 1

Vishal Koul

My life is defined by five stories and then some more. In Nagpur, we lived in a duplex; we were on the ground floor and a Sikh lady, Mrs Anand, lived on the first floor. She didn’t have any kids, so she treated me as a son. 

I was the middle child, and the naughtiest. My father worked at the National Physical Laboratory. Next to us lived a world-renowned scientist. One day, we were playing cricket. My friend swung his bat and the ball flew — straight through this scientist’s front window! All my friends ran away at once, but I simply stood there. I don’t remember why — maybe because I had not done anything wrong. 

I went and rang his bell, and asked for the ball. The scientist was so angry — we had broken his window and had the cheek to ask for the ball back! He took me to a chair and tied me up with a rope and told me, “You will sit in front of this broken window.” I sat there for what seemed like hours but were minutes at best. 

I was so miffed. None of my friends had tried to save me; instead they made fun of me for ‘getting caught’. I brooded and didn’t play with them for days. Mrs Anand noticed this and called me upstairs. I started crying, blurting out that the broken window had not been my fault in the first place. Why was I punished? And all that she said was: “What are you going to do about it?” 

That scene is still etched in my mind. Every time I gave an answer, she repeated the same question. She must have asked it a dozen times. Finally, I understood that I had to do something. So, I went downstairs, picked up a ball and broke another window. Then, I rang the bell and told him on his face that I had just broken his window, because I hadn’t broken the first one. And that the punishment he had meted out was unfair. This made him laugh! He gave me a piece of cake and sent me home. 

That incident taught me that things happen — sometimes it’s your fault, and sometimes it’s not. You don’t have control over what happens to you, but you can decide what you are going to do about it — and that is the difference between success and failure. 

The second story is from the time my father got transferred to Pantnagar, a University town at the foothills of the Himalayas. We were travelling there by train in the summer and the second-class coach was perspiring hot.

That night, I was awake, looking out of the window while the rest of the family slept soundly — I was always interested in what was going on around me. The train stopped at Ratlam station and I got down immediately, without, of course, telling anyone. I had never seen a railway station at night. Two people were fighting, and I stood to watch them. That’s when the train started moving. It was moving in the way trains do — very slowly at first. I was eight-years-old and completely overconfident — I thought I could catch the train. What I didn’t realise was that I was not tall enough to reach the hand rails: I started running but when I tried to jump onboard, I fell. I tried again and fell again. Suddenly, fear gripped me. What if I miss the train? I tried for a third time and fell again. I was in absolute panic now. The train was moving faster than I could run. I had two choices — to stand and cry or run after the train. I decided to do the latter but by then my compartment had long gone. I kept running; not very hopeful of a happy ending. Just then, a vegetable-seller, a lady who had obviously been watching this entire scene unfold, caught hold of my knickers and threw me into the guard’s compartment. 

I still recall the sheer relief that washed over me. I quietly joined my parents. I never told them about this incident — I was already getting whacked for mischief and did not want to get a beating for wandering off in the middle of the night. I told them years later. 

This taught me an important lesson, though. It’s fine to have impossible dreams. If you want to do something meaningful in life, then you have to start running without doubt, fear or panic. Just keep running. And someday, someone will throw you onto the train where you don’t belong.

In Pantnagar, I went to a small school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. We had an American principal called Sister Laurette. She was free-spirited, but so was I. When her superior, Sister Mary came for a visit, I performed Dum Maro Dum in front of her. She laughed her head off! Despite my free-spiritedness, Sister Laurette always encouraged me. But when I was in Class 6, we had a civics teacher who we thought wasn’t up to the mark. I remember her being quite young — maybe it was her first teaching assignment. So, one day during her class, we started dropping marbles on the floor — tak-tak-tak-tak-tak. Every time she faced the board, we would drop a marble. Predictably, this made her really mad and went to the principal and narrated the entire incident. This was the first time I saw Sister Laurette so angry and her face turned red as I had never seen before. She simply threw us out of the school.

I couldn’t go home and tell my family that I had been suspended. What could we do? Being the leader of the group who pulled the prank, the decision was left to me. I decided that we should all to go to school, and just sit in front of the gates. We didn’t know what a dharna was. We simply went to the school gates sat there, every day. Our mothers assumed we were going to school as usual. Every day, Sister Laurette would come out and reprimand us, asking us to go away. We would simply tell her that since we were outside the gates, we were technically out of school. We even claimed that we could hear what the teachers were teaching in class and could follow; we had our books and were not going anywhere. We sat outside school for what felt like days before she took us back in. She called me to her room and said, “Vineet, you will go far in life, but only if you pick your battles right. If you demonstrate the spunk you showed here in those battles, you will rise. On the other hand, if you choose the wrong battles, you will go down.”

That lesson was critical for me. I still live by it. I don’t fight 90% of the battles I face; the 10% that I do pick, I fight aggressively. I have never compromised on what I believe to be right. Never. If you eventually need to compromise, you shouldn’t have picked the fight in the first place. 

The fourth story is from when I hit 15. That summer, my father unfortunately passed away due to a heart attack. Apart from the utter shock, the most immediate problem was money. We had exactly Rs.320 in the bank — I remember it because I was the one who went to the bank to get the passbook updated and that number is etched in my memory. My mother was still young, but instead of breaking down completely, she took charge. She called my brothers and me for a family meeting and said that we are going to take three decisions today. One, we are not going to move out of town. Two, we are not going to take help from anybody. “And I am going to pursue higher studies in English. If I can demonstrate that I can get up at 4 a.m. and study, you boys can surely study too.”

Till that point, no matter how much I got yelled at or beaten, I would not study. But that day, all three of us changed. My 10th Board exams were coming up. The circumstances dramatically changed the outcome. When faced with an adversity, your reaction to it has to be as strong as the adversity itself. If not, it will consume you. 

XLRI was the most defining two years of my life shaped by some fantastic friendships that have lasted through all these years and where I met some professors who were brilliant and selfless. It was the period that shaped my ideas around leadership. This is the place where I had my first drink which became many by the time I left, my first smoke which fortunately I gave up within days of starting and my first trek which has grown into a crazy passion, now, of an annual high altitude trek. Thanks to my friends and teachers, XLRI helped me find myself.

This is part 1 of a three-part series. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.


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