Notes from a young life: Keynote address by Honorable Dr. Swarnim Wagle
1. Find a subject of interest, and pursue it with passion.
It is hard to succeed in a subject that does not excite you. It could be a niche within the arts, sciences, sports, theater, activism or all of them. But interests shift in life, and be open to embracing new ones. People also mature at different stages, so do not worry if you don’t know what you want to do in life by 18. Keep your options open and keep growing. One of Nepal's foremost scholars and diplomats, Yadu Nath Khanal, began his life learning an ancient language, publishing a collection of poems in Sanskrit called Suktisanchaya. His works on Nepali literary criticism remain a classic; and he later became a top diplomat who disentangled Nepal from its complicated relations with the big powers as ambassador to India, China and the United States. By straddling Kautilya to Kissinger and Devkota to Wordsworth, he led a rich life because of his versatile talents honed one phase at a time through devotion to work and knowledge. But to pursue your passions, sometimes you have to beat societal norms and expectations, and assure your family that you have planned for contingencies. Having excelled in the SLC exams, I was automatically expected to study to become either a doctor or an engineer. However, at the age of 17, I decided to study economics. My parents were terrified that I would have a lousy career. But I had good teachers, and my contingency was that I could have gone to study in India if I could not go to Europe or America through a scholarship funded by a corporate benefactor.
2. Always aim to enter the best institutions, but know that this is neither necessary nor sufficient to do well in life.
I will tell you about an episode that, at your age, felt like a huge failure. After my high school, I desperately wanted to go to Oxford. I received a warm response from a professor at Magdalen College, but was nonetheless rejected. But in 1999, when I won a scholarship for a Master's degree at Oxford, I rejected it. I felt I was moving on to better things and places. Academic brands have value because there is great joy in mingling with the best and occasional fun in competing with them. You would rather be a smallish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond. Big names also help you get an interview. But to be selected and thrive at work, the logo of a college is never enough. In the long run, it is individual competence that matters. Of the 12 US presidents after the Second World War, six have degrees from Harvard or Yale, but the other six do not, including Reagan and Nixon who graduated from places very few have heard of, and Truman never completed college. So when people ask if going to a top school makes you smart, I say it is the other way round: smart people happen to go to top schools.
3. Read voraciously; write prolifically; travel widely.
Nothing beats the confidence you acquire from broad exposure. Travel to new places, read fiction and non-fiction, and synthesize what you learn. Develop an early discipline for reading about things not necessarily required as part of your coursework. My own passions are in economics, history, politics and literature – but I also pick up books on science or mathematics. One of my favorite anecdotes actually comes from a book that I randomly skimmed. Once the British mathematician G.H. Hardy went to visit the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in a taxi with the number 1729. Hardy grumbled that the number was dull and maybe even a bad omen. Ramanujan immediately replied, “No, 1729 is very interesting. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two positive cubes in two different ways (1, 12 and 9, 10).” I cannot tell you how much pleasure this little anecdote has given me. It offers glimpse into the minds of a genius, and his unintended quirky humor. It makes you want to be better than you are now. This kind of inspiration can only come from reading. And reading more makes you a better writer. After your core technical skills in any field, the ability to communicate ranks high in importance.
4. Don’t be too selective at the beginning; all experiences add up.
Never stay idle. Grab the best opportunity available when you are on the job market, particularly when you are in your twenties. Acquires many skills as possible whether it is to crunch large volumes of data, or write a skilled memo for your boss, or code a computer program, or speak fluently in three of the six UN languages. My first real job was broadcasting news and current affairs from the BBC Nepali Service when I was a young student at the London School of Economics. I never intended to be a journalist, but that experience led me to be comfortable with the ways of the media. Almost all of you have heard of Steve Jobs. He dropped out of college because he did not want to burden his parents of high tuition costs at Reed. However, he hung around campus, auditing courses for free, and taking lessons in calligraphy. He is famous because he revolutionized not one, not two, but six modern industries: personal computers, phones, music, digital publishing, animated movies, and tablet computing. A common thread in all his products is beauty and aesthetics. And he attributes that passion to those random lessons in calligraphy he took as a very young man. So, yes, all little experiences add up. Steve Jobs did not have a degree from a big name college, but he created Apple which today has the world's most precious brand value at 118 billion dollars. This is six times Nepal's GDP.
By the time you become a young professional, you need to have figured out what you are good at. The one thing that you are really good at. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote about the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. To retain a broad grounding of knowledge in your core field, you need to update yourself constantly. Keep enlarging the portfolio of things that you are really good at. Here, I recall one advice of Kul Gautam, a Nepali professional who rose through the ranks to reach a high position in the UN. He said, “Do the unexpected.” In the middle of his career, he decided to learn Spanish and be good at it. This helped him in his subsequent work in Latin America where he could converse with officials in their language. After my Master’s degree, I worked for UNDP for five years. I then quit it voluntarily so that I could pursue a PhD to formalize my learning in international economics. I wanted to specialize so that I could elevate my career.
6. Be a pragmatic reformer, not a vacuous revolutionary.
In Nepal, our public leaders talk tall but deliver little. Sooner or later you get called out for non-action. In our daily lives, we should identify areas for reform and pursue them. It is easy to piggyback on reforms that are already underway. Sometimes small reforms can be transformative. But people who lose from change will resist. As my colleague Michael Woolcock used to say: You must be an anthropologist of your adversaries; challenge the assumptions and methods of your rivals but not their intelligence or motivations; cultivate allies on the inside; learn to speak different languages to different constituencies; and support your immediate superiors with ideas and evidence because they should know what you know. In all the professional jobs I have done, I have tried hard to earn the respect of peers and gain the confidence of bosses. If some of them show up for your wedding, or even funeral, you know you did reasonably well.
7. Do not be risk averse in career moves, but don’t over-plan; the sweetest outcomes are unscripted.
Don’t be afraid to quit or to move to a new job or place. In my own experience, many such moves resemble “one-step back, two-step forward.” But to leave behind your comfort zone and to take risks, you need to take the long view in life. How and where will you seek meaning and worth? As a Youngman, I was dejected when I did not get into a university or an organization of my choice the first time. But time eventually came when I outgrew the glory of studying or working at those institutions. All choices have trade-offs. The era of a secure, life-long job is over. Judge your time in a job by the quality of deliverables, not the number of years you have served. You have to be confident in your abilities, and today, you rise on the back of quality tasks you have accomplished. Just 15 months ago, I was sitting in a very comfortable office on the third floor with a full glass view of the beautiful atrium of World Bank headquarters in the heart of Washington, D.C. I had no idea then that today; I would be working out of a modest room belonging to the printing office of the Government of Nepal. But I am happier.
8. Never forget your roots.
Be grounded. Try and be humble. Know the difference between false modesty and humility. Never cultivate an attitude of superiority because we have seen many times that the higher you climb, the harder you fall. Travel the world, but also know Nepal in its full diversity. I was born in Gorkha and spent most of my childhood in Kathmandu and Chitwan. At 18, I along with friends from school walked on foot from Kathmandu to Hetaunda via Kulekhani tracing the old route to the plains. We did it because we felt like doing tithe same year, I visited Illam and Jhapa and wrote about the Bhutanese refugees who had just begun arriving. Ten years later, I crossed the Mahakali River from the Indian side and traveled on public bus through the Western Terai. I trekked up to Muktinath from Jomsom and also rode a donkey to Tukche to see BhupiSherchan’s ancestral house. And just a few months ago, I visited Dadeldhura, Doti and Accham in the Far West. Each of these trips not only deepened my connections to my own country, but energized me and better informed my worldview. And I tell you as someone who has traveled to 45 countries on five continents that there are few countries on earth that are more naturally beautiful than our own Nepal.
9. Seize any opportunity to serve the national interest, but never be sanctimonious.
We must give back to our nation in our own way. In this era of freedom and globalization, you can do it from within Nepal or abroad. We swathe generous outpouring of support from our expanding diaspora during the recent earthquakes, for instance. Nepalis abroad are often told to return to Nepal to serve. I actually don’t believe in the empty rhetoric of “sacrificing for the nation.” As citizens in a democracy, we have to respect personal liberties and choices. Life-altering decisions cannot be made lightly. But to envision a meaningful career within Nepal, one has to be oriented that way, and prepare for years and years. There is no one way of giving back. You can contribute as a free individual or through organized groups. You can start a business, pay taxes and create jobs. You can join the civil service or politics. Believe me, money is not the most important thing in life. It is memories and worthwhile experiences that you can take to the grave. But I will be the first to advice that it is very important to have a fair degree of financial security. You must earn clean money through honest hard work, and save a large chunk of it. If we pursue excellence in our own lives and professions with probity, not only will we benefit individually, but the spillovers inevitably serve a larger social purpose. The big test at every node of decision making is: would I regret not doing this? Living a life of good deeds now means you can relive the experience again atold age. As a student of economics and public policy for the last 25 years, I knew that at some phase in my career I would like to work in government -- and that would be my way of finding happiness while serving a cause larger than myself.
10. There is no short-cut to durable success.
We must all try to strike a work-life balance. As someone said, when you are on your deathbed no one will ever fret they wish they had spent more time in the office. But work is a virtue; it is not just about paying your bills. It is more about self-esteem and dignity. For lasting progress, you have to put in the hours. Hard, solid hours. Most successful people appear to go about their professions effortlessly. But this is misleading. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the rule of thumb of about 10,000 hours of practice to master a trade. Bill Gates had thousands of hours of computer programming practice ever since he had access to a computer at eighth grade. By the time he dropped out of Harvard without getting a degree, he was ready to change the world. In 1960 the Beatles went to Hamburg to sing in pubs. By 1962 they were playing eight hours per night, seven nights per week. In 1964, when they became famous in America, they had already played over 1,200 concerts together. And today’s music bands do not play that much in their entire career. But hard work should be done out of joy. And you must unwind at regular intervals -- both in the company of friends and alone.
Finally, families are our social anchor. Take care of them. It will never hurt you to call your father and mother once in a while and ask, “बुवा, हजूरको स्वास्थ्य ठिकै छ? आमा, सन्चै हुनुहुन्छ हैन?”
Thank You and Namaste.