The powerful lesson my dad taught me without even trying

Have you wondered what makes you who you are? I have. Here is my story. I had wanted to write this for long, never knew how it would fall out. That is the risk of writing about something close to your heart — my dad. Here we go.

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Have you wondered what makes you who you are? I have. Here is my story.

I had wanted to write this for long, never knew how it would fall out. That is the risk of writing about something close to your heart. Here we go.

What my deeply intuitive dad naturally did

My first 10 grades of school had one wild card everyday — an unpredictable railway gate that stood in my way to school. It was more often closed than open in the city of Madras (now called Chennai, India). Adding to my commute, I lived farther than 99% of my classmates.

Suffice to say, the time between my mom’s morning good bye and the welcoming aroma of her food [when I returned] was longer than most. Yet, I always felt blessed that my parents, [like many middle class parents of their generation,] found a way to prioritize my education above everything else.

At that cusp of 11th grade, my dad surprised me. We moved closer to school. That change brought a glimmer of opportunity.

I could amplify the new found closeness to school to pursue a dream — two year prep for engineering admission exams. There was one big problem. The class for physics started the very next day.

“Could you have a conversation with Balu sir?” I asked my dad. I missed the window — students swarmed Balu sir’s home on the day of 10th grade result announcement, mid summer. His classes always overflowed with IIT (Indian Institute Of Technology) aspirants. Balu sir, was the miracle professor at a local college who coached students for competitive IIT Joint Entrance Exam. His gift to generations of Chennai teenagers- he made Physics seem effortless.

That evening, my dad and I landed at his home. We were far from the only one. Parents were waiting at his verandah — a front porch enclosure with grills in place of walls and a raised platform for seating along the sides.

As Balu sir returned from work, parents made a beeline with their kids to speak with him. I wanted us to join the line and egged my father by pulling his hand. He gave that deep, understanding smile of his and motioned me to sit. The best way to describe my dad — a man of few words, loads of smile and far away from the limelight.

I knew I was shooting for the moon — I saw hordes of parents walk back with crestfallen looks.

The crowd slowly dissipated, Balu sir came our way. “How can I help?” he asked. My dad replied, “please have your dinner first, we will be here.” That surprised Balu sir. He did return after his dinner. In the calmness of the night and after a very short conversation, I got the nod to join the class the next day.

On my ride back, I was literally jumping up and down — lost in my reverie.

Let me explain why. Narayana Murthy (former CEO of Infosys), a middle class hero made headlines when he said that Stanford was backup for his kids in case they did not get an IIT admission. Those tough entrance exams were low odd outcomes.

The positive nod from Balu Sir that day had lower probability odds than a getting a rank in IIT entrance exam [especially after I had missed the early window]. And my dad made it happen. I was gushing.

For the full ride back home, all my dad did was smile — that deep smile of his. The full import of that smile, I never fully understood then- I was consumed by my good luck. I can now relate as a parent.

From a parent’s prism & lessons in entrepreneurship

My dad had a choice to shape the narrative that day. He could have shaped it like many other parents.

They came at the right hour and the right place, made a beeline to make a case for their child. And left disappointed. My dad chose a different narrative that goes beyond Jack Dorsey’s famous advice to entrepreneurs — meet the customer where they are. Jack did that with Square. Small business owners on the road needed an easy way to collect payments. One equipment they carried with him was their cell phones. Connecting the dots, Square was born.

My dad did that and more. He met the customer at their frame of mind.

With the words, “please have your dinner first”, he brought human connectivity center stage — a priority for the person over the task at hand. He understood the human ethos better than most — yours truly included.

In business, a “sales” close is treasured. My dad, a deeply introverted man, made one of the lowest odds close and that too for his son! No drama, no bombastic words, no objection handling, just a smile with tinge of pride — for his role in his child’s happiness.

It is one thing to be successful and provide for your family. It is quite another to open a door for your child, show him how the world could work when the odds were against you – without preaching one word.

I was blind. Now, I see: True reflections

We all become who we are without knowing the power of small acts that shaped us. A miracle of tender moments I never fully understood until a child [I] grew up to become a parent.

There was a time I craved to stand on my own. My well-meaning aunts (my father’s sisters) often shared, “you have an uncanny resemblance to your dad.” I did little things to look different — he left his shirt un-tucked and I tucked it in. Now, I summon my memories and I cling on to many — the one that floats above all — “spoke so little yet shared so much, in his acts through his smile — genuine, embracing and above all unbridled.

My dad was comfortable being lost in the crowd and was equally at ease in charting his own narrative. He soothed my world with his work ethic. He made me believe miracles are possible with dint of a warm smile.

When my four-year-old daughter had difficulty opening a box, she asked for my help. When I helped her with the simple act, she was thrilled and thanked me. All I did was smile.

Now, I feel the gravitas of my dad’s impact.

Who he was, I became. My dad, my hero, I miss you.

This article appeared on Thrive Global.