Tubular Belle

Tubular BelleLast 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.

12 thoughts on “Tubular Belle

  1. Patrix Tuesday November 14, 2006 / 3:36 am

    Richard had always seemed like an oddball character but there was sharp business acumen behind that seemingly flippant outlook. His recent commitment to contribute to the cause of global warming has made me look at him with renewed respect.

    Thanks for your recommendation on his book. I’ll definitely pick it up the next time I’m in a bookstore.

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  2. Krishnan Tuesday November 14, 2006 / 10:28 am

    Excellent post Atanu.

    The interpretation of the words Dharma and Karma Yogi you have given is the most common one. However, here is an interpretation of the word Dharma (by Rishi Prabhakar) that I have liked –

    Dharma is any action coming out of a state of meditation; the action is a response to a situation and not the product of thinking. When a person is in a constant meditative state, all his actions are Dharma (even killing). Even righteous acts committed in the state of non-meditation are considered adharma. A Karma Yogi is one whose every action is Dharma (has gone beyond the causal effects of Karma and is in the state of Moksha).

    The ancient practice of Upanayanam (the sacred thread ceremony) in India was meant to initiate a child into this practice of meditation; it was believed that a child who learnt mediation early would do dharma and become a Karma Yogi. The initiation was done by a Guru in his Gurukul and other kinds of learning followed this initiation. Sadly, the traditional gurukul system has been replaced by a system where the kid is taught “Baa-Baa black sheep” on day one.

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  3. aditya Tuesday November 14, 2006 / 1:20 pm

    “As long as you have the basics, and have the passion, you can make a difference.”

    … and this is probably one of the fundamental guidelines of a meaningful education system …

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  4. Amit Ranjan Verma Tuesday November 14, 2006 / 1:43 pm

    The book in question is basically summary of his autobiography “losing my virginity”,a delightful read.He is called maverick businessman not for nothing.He and his team are now working on space travel .

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  5. Deep Tuesday November 14, 2006 / 8:18 pm

    I read somewhere just a couple of days ago or so, that he had introduced a new fleet titled “Jefferson Airplane”.

    There’s an Airplane song called “Fat Angel” which brings into perspective the band’s name. It goes :

    He’ll bring you happiness
    In a pipe
    And he’ll ride away
    On his silver bike
    And apart from that
    He’ll be so kind
    In consenting to
    Blow your mind
    Fly Jefferson Airplane
    Get you there on time

    :):)

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  6. Guru Gulab Khatri Wednesday November 15, 2006 / 8:04 am

    RE: Having no regret.

    W/o regreting a mistake how can some one not repeat the same mistake?

    Regret and Grief over an action for which you were responsible is important.

    Its evolutionary important why emotions are a big part of memory.

    And We all know that whats in the past is gone, its the now that we can control matters, when future comes contentment/regret will both be there. Just hoping my present choices will put more in the contentment bin.

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  7. Sharan Sharma Wednesday November 15, 2006 / 9:43 am

    Hi Krishnan,
    (sorry Atanu: this is OT, but thought i’d respond to the comment above)

    > The initiation was done by a Guru in his Gurukul and other kinds of learning followed this initiation.

    No. The initiation in the upanayanam is done by the father. It is post-upanayanam that the child is sent to the Guru’s residence.

    > Sadly, the traditional gurukul system has been replaced by a system where the kid is taught “Baa-Baa black sheep” on day one.

    The “Baa-baa black sheep” happens to be the Veda. It’s learning by rote from the Guru (not through books) has existed ever since the Veda was taught.It forms a *very* important part in the pedagogical structure of a Gurukula.

    The “B-b b b” is done for only half a year. The other half has to be COMPULSARILY be spent on learning the Vedanga (a choice the student is given : phoentics, grammar, etymology, philosophy etc.). This ensures that the student has a complete grasp of is being taught.

    More on the “B-b b b” : There are several important reasons for this – which i shall not get into here in detail (this comment in OT anyway and is getting threateningly long). But the fundamental reason for the survival of the Veda exactly the way it was, say, 3000 years ago is because it is passed on through an exact oral transmission with complicated iterations (vikriti patha) that serve as error correcting codes.

    Also,anyone who has learnt the Veda by rote knows that it is essential in quickly connecting different passages (seemingly diconnected) quickly.

    The sad part however is that many kids who join Gurukuls hail from very poor families and there is a lot of pressure in starting to work early. So many *choose* to leave early after having learnt only the basic mantras needed to perform common rituals.

    Fortunately, in the last 20 years or so, things have improved – many traditional mathAs now provide scholarships to bright students that ensure they stay back to study the system in completeness.

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  8. Kumar N Thursday November 16, 2006 / 10:05 am

    Hi Atanu,

    Nice to read a post on Branson.I recommend reading ‘Losing My Virginity’ which is a more detailed account of Branson’s experiences.Branson’s fight against Britih Airways monopoly is a good example of how entrepreneurs can overcome so-called ‘entry barriers’.

    Coming to the comments on educational system, I wonder if it is worthwhile revisiting and reinterpreting Gandhian model for India’s educational system.

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  9. Anonymous Saturday November 18, 2006 / 12:49 pm

    Inspiring post.
    I’d always suspected that it’s his luck that has made him what he is — but, now I realize there is method in his madness.

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  10. Shivani Sunday December 10, 2006 / 8:17 pm

    Would definitely read the book . Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  11. Jagadis Monday January 8, 2007 / 12:56 am

    Hi Atanu, it was nine to read your article on Richard,I am his fan and would definitely like to meet him some day.He is really genious.I am not a continuious reader so I never complete a book but I finished his autobiography “Loosing my Virginity” also you must read a parallely “Branson” by Tom Brower in this you will find how Brower is exciting Richard for a dweel but Richard is with that great world charming smile.
    What a great mother also a nice father he got. The relation ship with Tomasi, and his great wife Joan Please read,then we can talk again .

    Hey Richard are you reading it I have lot of ideas for you call me at 009820399481. I call you Baba Branson.

    Love to you all
    Jagadis

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