Last month, while waiting at San Francisco International airport for my flight back to India, I was tickled to see a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 which was named Tubular Belle taxi into the next parking bay. It had Richard Branson’s zany sense of humor written all over it. Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells is one of my old-time favorites and, as it happened, I had it in my MP3 player (a new Creative Vision M, I will have you know). Clever name for a 747, I thought to myself. But I did not know the connection between Virgin and Mike Oldfield until this afternoon when I picked up and read Richard Branson’s book Screw it, Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life. (Virgin Books (C) 2006).
Naturally, I had heard of Branson, the dare devil billionaire. But after reading the book, I realized what a remarkable character he is. The book is just a thumbnail sketch of a crazy Englishman, a man with vision and a passion to live life to its maximum. A successful businessman who is as incredibly lucky as he is hard working and driven. Life is a random draw but how you play the cards that you are dealt makes all the difference. Branson’s life (and it is far from over) has many lessons which are worth learning and I am unabashedly endorsing Mr Richard Branson here.
He does not play by the rules as he says in the introduction. “Though I never followed the rules at every step, I have learnt many lessons along the way. My lessons started at home when I was young.” His mother must be remarkable person as well. That is part of the random draw of life. We are shaped by our early care-givers. She encouraged him but did not push him. I see a similarity here in the mother that another of my heroes, Jane Goodall, got. Her mother also encouraged her to explore and learn. From Richard’s book it is clear that his early childhood experiences had a profound effect on who he finally turned out to be. This is strongly suggestive that who we are is influenced by those who are closest to us when we are young and impressionable. If you are looking for yet one more reason why women must be educated, it is this: mothers influence the growth and development of their children.
I was surprised to learn that Branson is dyslexic. Not the first person I know of who is both successful and dyslexic. Charles Schwab is one also. Handicaps can be overcome, is the lesson that is worth learning here. Of course, you can sit and whine about the cards you were dealt. Or you can get off your butt and compensate for the bad cards by skillfully playing the good cards. And that is what Branson did. He memorized stuff to compensate for his dyslexia.
Branson did not get far in formal education. He learnt the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic) and then learnt the rest on this own in the great big classroom of life. And that is another thing that is significant to me: you don’t have to spend 15 years in a classroom and get certificates from the government to become capable of adding value to the world. As long as you have the basics, and have the passion, you can make a difference.
Of course, we make a difference in our own ways. We don’t all have to make fundamental discoveries in particle physics to make a positive difference to the world. Depending on our basic nature, our dharma as we say it in India, we have the opportunity to make a contribution. Branson made a difference by following his passion to do business. He has fun doing business and he takes pain to point out that he is not motivated by the need to make money but rather to have fun. The money, he is convinced, is just a side-effect.
Branson’s book is an easy read. It is more than that, actually. To me it was a delightful find. The friend whose I house I am staying at (homeless in Pune still) showed me his bookshelf. There was Clinton’s autobiography, “The World is Flat,” “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” “The Tipping Point,” and some more of the usual fat best sellers that are, in my opinion, eminently worth passing over. But Branson’s book was a brief 100 pages of large-type pages. I finished the book in one go, only to pause briefly in the middle to call up a friend to say that he has got to read that book.
I confess that I have great difficulty reading the management books that people go ga-ga over. “The World is Flat” is a book that would leave me unmoved. “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” I would be content to leave at the bottom of the pile of books I would read. But a slim book by someone who has been there and done that I can finish in one sitting and be inspired by.
Each chapter begins with down to earth advice. Sample these:
- Believe It Can Be Done
- Have Goals
- Live Life to the Full
- Never Give Up
- Prepare Well
- Have Faith in Yourself
- Help Each Other
- Have Fun, Work Hard and Money Will Come
- Don’t Waste Time–Grab Your Chances
- Have a Positive Outlook on Life
- When It’s Not Fun, Move On
He writes: “I didn’t set out to be rich. The fun and challenge in life were what I wanted — and still do. I don’t deny that money is important. . . We live in an era when we must have some money to survive. . . I never went into business to make money — but I have found that, if I have fun, the money will come. I often ask myself, is my work fun and does it make me happy? I believe that the answer to that matters more than fame or fortune. If something stops being fun, I ask why? If I can’t fix it, I stop doing it.”
Branson is not an idiot. He recognizes that life is not always easy. He writes, “Not all of us have the money to start up a business, or the luck, or the chances aren’t there.” He understands the role of luck in the way it works out. So his advice is
- Calculate the Risks and Take Them
- Believe in Yourself
- Chase Your Dreams and Goals
- Have No Regrets
- Be Bold
- Keep Your Word
All those bits of wisdom are not empty; those lessons are illustrated by his own life experiences. Ballooning across the Atlantic or learning to swim at age four to win a bet: it was all part of the lessons he learnt. He constantly challenged himself. He quotes James Ullman, “Challenge is the core and mainspring of all human action. If there’s an ocean, we cross it. If there’s a disease, we cure it. If there’s a wrong, we right it. If there’s a record, we break it. And if there’s a mountain, we climb it.”
What I especially liked about the book was that it was down to earth and unpretentious. His declaration, “I believe in myself. I believe in the hands that work, in the brains that think, and in the hearts that love” is both honest and believable. The book is interspersed with meditative thoughts.
“In a way,” he writes, “regrets are like wanting the peach you have thrown away. It’s gone, but you are filled with remorse. You wish you hadn’t thrown it away. You want it back. I believe the one thing that helps you capture the moment is to have no regrets. Regrets weigh you down. They hold you back in the past when you should move on.”
Or his conviction (almost Buddhist) that one should live in the moment. “Always living in the future can slow us down as much as always looking behind. Many people are always looking ahead and they seem never content. They look for quick fixes, like winning the lottery. I know that goals are important. Money is important. But the bottom line is money is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. And what is going on now is just as important as what you’re planning for the future. So, even though my diary is full for months ahead, I have learned to live for the moment.”
I am not surprised that Branson’s books chapter titles read like a Buddhist manual: “Be Bold.” “Challenge Yourself.” “Stand on Your Own Two Feet.” “Live the Moment.” “Value Family and Friends.” “Have Respect.” “Do Some Good.” He sounds like a Zen master. In our Indian terminology, he is a Karma Yogi, a person who takes action.
I wondered, as I read the book, how wonderful it would be if it were read by the millions of young adults in India. Would, out of the tens of millions, a few hundreds be inspired to work hard to fulfill their dreams which they must also have? And would a few hundred Richard Bransons not transform India instead of the thieving, unprincipled, corrupt politicians we read about day in and day out in our media? Who are our public heroes? Where are our heroes who create wealth? If all we know about is celluloid fakes, is it any wonder that we are not inspired?
Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was playing as I wrote this. Many many years ago, it was that hit album that Virgin Music published and made piles of money and launched the entire Virgin empire. That explains the 747 with the lovely name Tubular Belle. The world is connected in magically myriad ways.
Now that the song is over, I will move on to Oldfield’s Ommadawn. I recommend the music as much as I recommend the book.