Prof Srinivasan Krishnamurthy (PGP 1989)
I come from a middle class family – my father worked for the Indian government and my mother was a stay at home mom. She was actively involved in our activities and made sure that things went smoothly for us, including helping with homework, and a lot more. So, I did not have too many obstacles in my early life. This strong family support helped me go through my school years. I also completed my studies, both at IIT Kanpur and at WIMWI – IIMA, relatively unscathed. I was never at the top of the class but I also was never at the bottom, I was solidly in the middle of the pack and hence did not face too much adversity. Of course, in addition to my family, I had tons of friends and classmates that I could call upon for whatever help I needed and living on campus (D11) was an absolute blast. So, I really did not have too many things to worry about until I started my PhD program in Finance at Tulane University in New Orleans, trying my hand at something completely new.
PhD PROGRAM AT TULANE UNIVERSITY Even though Tulane is a founding member of the AACSB, the PhD program was relatively new when I enrolled there (1992). I was in the third batch of students and the university was intent on making sure that the graduates were able to get good jobs so they could establish the program’s reputation. As part of this endeavor, even though we had fellowships, we were encouraged to teach classes in our discipline so we could have some teaching experience under our belt before we graduated. One semester, at the urging of some of my friends, I signed up to learn swimming. I still do not know why I agreed, since I had my hands more than full with teaching, research, playing cricket as a club sport (we would often play other colleges, home and away), racquetball, and squash. Note that I had zero experience of swimming, and I had only once set foot in a pool and that was when I was working at Deutsche Bank and went to Singapore for training – I just stood in the water or sat on the edge with my foot in the water while my colleagues swam, so swimming was going to be a completely new thing for me. I was terrified of drowning if I could not feel my feet under me, and the engineer in me was always skeptical on the floaties keeping me afloat without having actually witnessed any of the testing! And, of course, I did not want a live test in this case.
ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE SWIMMING CLASS, I eagerly went to the pool at the appointed time, resplendent in my newly acquired swimming shorts. As luck would have it, the instructor for the swimming lessons was a student in my UG class that I was teaching that semester! There were about ten of us, mainly older folks. Note that as a Division 1 NCAA school, the swimming complex had several Olympic size pools with multiple lanes, and we were in one corner of the pool – the most shallow end, in about 3 feet of water. We listened to the instructor tell us how we would learn to float first, and then would learn how to swim. We all got the floaties strapped on to us, and he said to just relax and let go – basically allow Archimedes’ principle to take over! My feet stayed firmly rooted on the ground, but some of the other folks looked to be naturals and were able to float at the first attempt, though with the floaties attached.
I came with a positive mindset the next day – after all, I was supposed to be a quick learner and had attended two of the topmost competitive schools in the whole country. How difficult could it be to learn how to just float? I had solved so many floatation problems in the physics and fluid mechanics classes at college, so I was confident that I would make it. Well, bottom line, at the end of our second session, my feet just would not listen to any commands from my brain to lift off. Or, maybe, just maybe, the commands from my brain were not persuasive enough and my subconscious mind had taken control and implanted subtle signals that basically told my feet – stay put. A little bit like coach Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh) subtly motioning to the goalie to stay put in the penalty shootout at the end of the movie Chak De! India. In any case, my feet stayed firmly on terra firma, like a 100-year old banyan tree with several prop roots anchoring it firmly to the earth.
I MADE NO TI LITTLE PROGRESS The next day, I turned up, slightly apprehensive. This was the first time in quite a while that I was trying something totally new and it was not going well. Claiming it was “Not going well” is a slight exaggeration – I was not even able to get started. Of course, as a top order batter in cricket, I have got out first ball a few times so failure was not foreign to me. But they were preceded by other innings with substantial scores, so it is not like I was a total zero despite me trying my best. The coach (my student) sensed it, and said that by the end of class that day, I would float. He added a heavier floatie – he said that the extra buoyancy would push me up even against my will and my feet would be up in the water (not on the floor of the pool) and I would be floating. Well, the “experiment” achieved its objective and much as I unconsciously tried, my feet would not touch the pool floor – and hooray, I had managed to float on the third attempt! The only issue was that since we were near the corner of the pool, there were steps leading into the pool and a metal handle bar was to the side, and one of my hands was wrapped around it for support. The coach asked me to let go of the bar many times, but it just did not happen. At the end of the session, all the other folks seemed to be comfortable floating and were ready to move on to the next step – actually swimming. The coach chatted with them and I was the last person left. He asked, “How do you think it went?”. I said, “I think I made a little progress since I was able to float, but it seems to be awfully difficult. My arms are hurting badly.” He replied ” Do you know why your arm is hurting? It is because you were holding on to the handle bar so hard that I could literally see the whites of your bones! C’mon man.”
I QUIT, BUT… .. I knew then that it was time for me to make a decision one way or another – whether to proceed with the swimming lessons or not. I had a nagging feeling that I was sort of holding the other folks back. While I was talking with the coach, I saw what seemed to be a five-year old girl swim the length of the pool and back in one of the other lanes. The realization hit home like a ton of bricks – much as I would like it, I cannot do every single thing in life. Sometimes it could be due to biological reasons such as giving birth to a baby (I am male), dunking a basketball (I am just under six feet and that is not nearly tall enough to dunk over defenders), etc.; other times it could be due to limitations of time since there are only 24 hours in a day; and distressingly enough, some other times it could be due to simply lacking skill. I realized that one has to pick and choose what to do in the limited time available, and should prioritize items that are more important and if need be, leave out some of the unimportant ones. Keep in mind, this was at a time when I was studying for my PhD in Finance, and time is in absolutely short supply during a PhD. While I would love to put it down to time constraints, it was becoming painfully obvious to me that I was going to have a hard time learning how to float, leave alone learning to actually swim. Call it a lack of skill or a lack of ability or whatever, I was just not going to find it easy to learn it. So, I told the coach (who was my student) that it was hard and hence I was going to give up on the lessons – the return (learning to swim) on investment (my time and effort) was not worth it. He tried to convince me that he would spend some extra time and try to ensure that I would learn how to swim, but it did not seem fair to me and my mind was made up to quit. He then made a comment that has stayed with me until now. He said “Srini (I usually ask students to just call me by my name without any prefixes), could you please remember this when you are teaching us in class? Finance may be easy for you and you can zip through stuff, but for many of us, it may actually be more difficult than swimming has been for you. It would be great if you slow down a bit in class so we can follow what you are teaching. Also, you could choose not to complete the swimming lessons, but as finance majors, we have to complete your class and learn the material well. We can’t quit, and failure is not an option.”
AN IMPORTANT POINT TO REMEMBER Later the next day, as I was preparing for my class, I realized that the student (unfortunately I don’t remember his name) had just made a very important point. Not all of us can learn at the same speed, and some of us may need extra time. Even after putting in a lot of effort, some folks may not excel and get an A+, and that is ok (of course I will say it is ok, I was not an Scholer!). Recognizing this and internalizing this has been very useful for me throughout my career. My classes are TOUGH, students frequently say that it is the toughest class they have ever taken. As a result, I try to be as patient as possible when students are learning difficult concepts. I try to slow down and ensure that most of them are getting at least some of the concepts, if not all. Of course, since time is limited, a few times I have to tell the students that I will post a more detailed (and often different) explanation online, with the hope that at least one of the different explanations will stick. After all, my own student did try his hand at using different strategies for teaching people with different learning abilities.
At least partially due to this (and other similar) experiences, I have tried to make sure that all students learn the content well, and this has been appreciated with generally decent to good student evals. I have won a few teaching awards over the years, and have been recognized as a member of the Academy of Outstanding Teachers at NC State University.
LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE For me, there are three key takeaways from this experience, as I have learned and internalized over the years:
Realizing that one cannot do everything and that there will always be something that we will completely fluff. That is ok, but all situations, whether they are successes or failures, can teach us something useful. It is up to us as individuals to draw out the learnings from all these situations, and that can lead us to continually improve ourselves.
Recognizing that everyone learns at different speeds and has different skill sets. No one can excel at everything, though there were some classmates who broke that mold at WIMWI and excelled at virtually everything. So, maybe, I should reword it and say “not everyone can excel at everything”. Hence, recognizing one’s own strengths and weaknesses and ensuring that all the mission-critical activities are allocated sufficient time for completion (e.g., more time for those that we are not very strong at, aka time management) is important.
Having a dose of patience and showing a willingness to try different explanations or different ways of getting one’s message across is worth its weight in gold (or maybe I should say bitcoins, going with the flavor of the decade). This is true both in the classroom and in the business world. Language is not as precise as math and the same word can have many meanings, and even our tone could convey unintended messages. Learning to communicate effectively, so that the receiver of the communication understands what the sender meant to say, is important.