Wednesday 1 June 2016

Book Review: Ready, Steady, Go! by Deepak Mehra

Book Review: Ready, Steady, Go! By Deepak Mehra

Book: Ready, Steady, Go!
Publisher: Jaico Books
Author: Deepak Mehra

The ‘Stockdale Paradox’ refers to the observations presented by Admiral James Bond Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight long years during the Vietnam War. Despite regular torture and the miserable conditions in the prison camps, Stockdale survived to tell his tale, while so many of his fellow-POW’s did not make it. The ‘Paradox’ I referred to was the Admiral’s recounting of how it was the most optimistic of soldiers who died in those camps, while the realists (or pessimists, as they may be called in this firmly happiness-obsessed world) made it. To quote Stockdale itself:

“They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

You'd expect James Bond to survive Vietnam, somehow.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

It sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the ones who held on to hope would be the ones who survived, while those who did not would lose the will to live. Conversely, as Stockdale pointed out, he was still convinced he would get out, but he did not try to deny or sugar-coat the brutality of the conditions he lived in. And this healthy dose of realism is the reason why he and others like him survived eight years in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, as it was called, and and came out to go on to become a decorated Admiral and Vice-Presidential candidate.

But why am I writing about the Stockdale Paradox in a review of a self-help book for corporate climbers?

Well, because the modern corporation can be as much a prison of the mind as the Hanoi Hilton was for the body and souls of its unfortunate guests. Inflicting needless torture, denying nourishment and periods of isolation were how the North Vietnamese tried to break down the resolve of the soldiers who fell into their hands, and if you have spent much time in an Indian corporate, your brain might find the proliferation of pointless and illogical work and lack of tasks requiring actual creative thinking and application of mind to be not very different.

And because Ready, Steady, Go! is the Jim Stockdale of Corporate self-help books.

Self-help books
A typical corporate self-help book is page after page of relentless optimism. Cheerily the book’s cover promises to ‘empower’ you, the reader, to ‘change your career trajectory’ and ‘unleash your potential’, as though it were a dog that just needed to be let loose upon the world. This is followed by a lot of philosophical verbosity of a fluffy, light-on-substance variety, invented anecdotes that appear to have gone through a protracted hostile divorce from reality and then a series of motivational quotes by CEO’s who are at least twenty years removed in terms of careers than the readers of these books.

But this one is different
None of that for Ready, Steady, Go! Mr. Mehra’s work is grounded in realism, its tenets firmly practical, readily implementable and, as far as I can tell from my own experience in Banking, entirely valid. No ‘corporate gas’ or philosophical murmurings here. Ready, Steady, Go! is an illusion-breaker, very down-to-earth, and reads like genuine advice being given by an older, wiser professional to his juniors.

In short, they won’t teach you this in B-school. Or in corporate trainings, motivational seminars, personality development classes, spiritual meditation sessions and so on.

What’s in it?
The title is also used as the headings of the three separate sections of the book.

Ready is the first section, and deals with helpful tips for making the transition from academics to corporate life. From dress codes to the importance of maintaining a clean desk, from managing your immediate superior to minding your body language, this part of the book tries to inject a healthy dose of reality into the lives of young white-collar employees.

Steady, the second section, deals with the pointers for making a mid-level employee able to maintain his standing and continue to make forward progress up the career ladder. The importance of keeping your personal and office lives separate, of being not only working hard, but being seen to do so, of needing to always keep your game face on, is consistently emphasised here.

Go! Is the final section of the book, and tries to take the reader through the essential characteristics for rising above the mid-level and breaking into upper management. Here Mr. Mehra speaks about the importance of being known to your superiors, focussing on return on investment, creating a positive work environment, embracing the solitude that comes with being at the top of the corporate pyramid.

Decoding the Corporation
There are, in my opinion – and I have had a fairly long corporate career that was successful by most metrics to back it up – two ways to survive corporate India.

One is to become a cultist – to actually believe you are doing something significant, that every situation you face is a life-and-death one, and to do what it takes to rise up in the cult. If that means sacrificing others –or yourself - at the altar of corporate greed, you will do it, fully believing that what you do is holy and just. Unfortunately, like most cultists, only the one’s at the very top actually get anything out of it, and they are jealous of their privileges.

The other is to become a cynic, detaching your personal opinions - even your innate sensibilities – from your workplace, wearing a slick mask for the ten or twelve hours you spend in the workplace, and allowing it to come off when you get home, hopefully in time to retain your sanity.

Ready, Steady, Go! has the potential to be an invaluable tool for those of us in the second category. It is crisply written – each point gets not more than three to five pages – and clearly expressed. Anecdotes appear to be realistic and as I have said before, the author has avoided coming across as a empty talker.

Some of the suggestions in the book will appear trivial – waking up on time, organising your calendar, embracing being ‘boring’ – but far too many people seem ignorant of them.

Perhaps a weakness of the book could be it’s orientation towards the non-creative industries; the inherent biases towards outward appearances in firms operating in advertising and media-related industries would make Ready, Steady, Go! rather out-of-place over there. 

Would recommend this for every irrationally exuberant youngster who is embarking on corporate life.

The Author

Deepak Mehra is a banker of long standing, having worked with Commercial bank of Dubai and Credit Suisse among others, in a long career. This makes him uniquely able to understand the realities of working in financial services, which is one of the dominant sectors in the world today.

Available here on Amazon 

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking review though it doesn't make me want to read the book. Maybe because I'm not in the banking industry and have experience in both creative and non-creative industries. I found your preface story and opinions at the end more interesting in fact and debatable. I don't necessarily agree but they do apply inversely or directly to my experiences.