I do have this Tamil guilt. I hit the jackpot — my life shouldn’t have ended up where it did.
I just answered an ad. Dumb luck?
I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka almost half a century ago. In the early 70s, fearing anti-Tamil sentiments, my father decided to move us to our ancestral home, Point Pedro — a northern coastal town — while he remained in Colombo to make a living. My father was everything to me.
My scarred memory is full of incidents of experiences growing up in Point Pedro during the war — whose inhabitants were frequently bombed and shelled to oblivion. As boys growing up in the North in the midst of armed conflict in 1985-86, on most nights during the heavy bombardment my brother and I used to lay on the floor of our ancestral home. We soon learned to recognize at a very young age the different sounds generated by bombers during air raids — the aircraft guns; the machine guns and the return fire of Tamil fighters; the cracks made by the incendiaries as they landed; the shock waves from high explosive bombs, preceded by a seismic wave that was felt as we lay on the ground and the subsequent haunting screams of those poor souls who got caught in it.
At school, the teacher would sometimes ask us to stand and observe a moment of silence for the souls of my classmates who had been killed in a recent raid. It’s hard to enjoy the Western dream when your nightmares leave you racked with survivor’s guilt.
For me, the fear I remember most clearly was feeling the shocks from sticks of bombs, each one getting closer and more intense — laying on the floor thinking that I will never have the chance to fall in love, feel the gentle touch of a woman, be a father or grow old. Every night I thought I will never see the morning next day. And then the relief came when the return fire came from the Tamil side and the intensity of enemy fire began to fade away. But some nights, surprisingly I have slept through it all. Such recklessness and flair for risk-taking may have helped me to be where I’m today. I’m not alone or special in this way — many Tamils who grew up in war probably can attest to this.
Sensing there was no future for me in that godforsaken country, my father decided to send me to Canada. April 18, 1988 will be forever etched in my memory. It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. Like most Tamil men of his generation, my father mostly lived the stoic ideal. He was the breadwinner of our tiny family, the rock against which the family could lean.
But not that day. He was uncontrollable at the Colombo airport and came apart at the seams. My father peered through the glass and waved his final goodbye to me at the Colombo airport. His facial expression said it all. I was heading to Canada. I will never forget that moment.
And that was the last time I ever saw him. He was killed three days later — a horrible event I keep reliving. When I heard the news of his death in Toronto, I sobbed while clinging to the kitchen countertop like it was a life preserver.
He had a quiet dignity about him — I knew that even as a kid. One of the funniest and thoughtful humans I have the had the pleasure of knowing. When he died tragically, part of me died with him. But the other part wanted to succeed in life really bad — at any cost. I was 18 at the time and living in Canada — reckless, resentful and regretful. After he was gone, I had this feeling that somehow if I did well in life, I could give him the life he always wanted to have. That became my focus.
I believe in divine misdirection and knowing that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I answered a job advertisement for a mailroom clerk position and met my future. It is rare to find someone in life who believes in you even more than you believe in yourself and shows you what hard work really is.
I was so fortunate to find that in my Boss, Chairman, Mentor, Motivator, Disciplinarian, Friend and a Cheerleader — Bill Holland. A man who taught a young kid from a war-torn country that the world is not necessarily a bad place and nudged my life in a better direction. I’m so fortunate to have met him — about 30 years ago when he walked into the mailroom I was working at.
He once said to me that making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That's the hard part. Choosing the best possible path is only possible after you've established that you've got the guts and the commitment to make a decision. Don’t be afraid of change. Be afraid of not changing.
Thoughts lead to behaviour which leads to results. The last freedom a person has is the right to choose their own behaviour. Through loathing over imperfection in your lot in life you gain nothing. In life, we get more of what we respond to. The world doesn’t care how you feel. The world cares how you act. Everyone expects a residue of sympathy from others. The world may sympathize, it may shed tears — but fixing your problems is your own responsibility. The world owes you nothing.
Exhaust your potential. Don’t quit until you have nothing left to give. That’s what everybody should be doing. You are given a toolbox and a set of tools. You are supposed to work those tools as hard as you can — for every heartbeat you’ve got. How many heartbeats do you have left? Nobody knows. So take every heartbeat as a very big deal and go for it.
In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia. During challenging times, people seem to find themselves in one of two camps; those who see the opportunity within the obstacle and those who do not. The choice of motivation is a fork in the road – it not only determines what we do and how we do it. It is not about the triumph but about the struggle. Real growth comes from purpose. Why do you exist?
I always wanted my father to say, "I'm proud of you son. I mean that." But that could never happen now. So all I’d really cared about all my life so far since his passing was to become successful — to the exclusion of everything else — that I now realize as actually living.
This change came for me recently after a life changing event. Before that, all I wanted to do was to win at the expense of everything. Every day my report card comes in the form of an overnight sales email. Even when it’s positive, it’s not glorious euphoria — because I’m relieved and then thinking of how to win the next day.
But now I’m starting to fall in love with life a little bit. I’ve started to appreciate what is good and what is important in life. One is my relationship with others, especially loved ones — my wife and son. Everything else is secondary.
There is a message I want to get out to anyone who is pursuing a dream — if it sucks while doing it, that is how you know you are doing it correctly. And that person belongs to a rich history of a long lineage of Tamils who had to jump though crappy hoops to get where they are today. Until then, don’t let any setbacks distract you. And always value your relationships with others — especially your loved ones. It is binary — zero or one. Zero is everything else, and one is your family and loyal friends.
I have now gotten to a point in life where it less about competing against others but more about competing against myself. It’s much more of a lonely pursuit. I’m at that point. In fact, I think it’s deeper than that — it’s gut-wrenching, and sometimes the narcissist in me thinks I’m at a place that few are at. Sometimes it feels like no one is in my shoes and I want my life back.
Now, in terms of daily motivation, I must motivate myself based on what I want and how bad I want it. When that battle is with myself I can’t lie to myself cause when I look in the mirror I know all the truth. Battling with myself — that is deep. I want to be a better person — especially at home.
I have made thousands of presentations. But I’m the type of person who gets nervous — very nervous — before any presentation, I really do. Every time I ask, am I able to deliver this? But I train well for it. I execute when I train — but I always worry and am always paranoid. “Can I still do it?” I don’t know why. I’m always nervous. I’m too competitive — I’m just too competitive. I don’t want to lose at this point in my life.
For the next few years, I’m going out to work to make sure I can silence my doubters. I will push myself to the ultimate level. I will go through everything in my head — all the vulnerabilities, insecurities, game plans, sales plans — and then give my bravado and sometimes a smile.
It took a lot of hard work, guts, focus and concentration to get here. It was not easy. People think it was simple. And I must remind myself that, “Listen you have a goal for yourself, and if you don’t win all that you have done doesn’t really matter.” And that’s one of the things that keeps me going. I dedicated my life to this. It been a long journey — and it’s not over. It is better to take the risk and fail sometimes than not to take the risk at all and fail for sure. That’s my Point Pedro training.
One of the journeys is my relationship with my wife and son. I appreciate what they have endured and tolerated as I ascended to the top corporately. Now, failure isn’t an option — on both counts, personally and professionally. As I struggle with this dichotomy, I’m reminded of an Ojibwe saying, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”
Now, almost in my 50s — as a husband and father — I realize this more than ever.
I will overcome that Tamil guilt. I will get there. But I can guarantee that it will be progress — not perfection.