Shweta Punj author of the book Why I Failed shares her thoughts with Anureviews.
Interview with author Shweta Punj
Tell us something about yourself – where did you grow up, what did you study and what do you do for a living?
Shweta Punj: I like to think of myself as an observer because that’s what Journalists do, we observe, and write what others don’t see. Or, at least that’s the idea. Though I cannot classify as a fly on the wall because I am too loud and opinionated for that. But, Yes, I am an observer, a chronicler of life. Very prone to extreme highs and lows, I can get too involved and too detached rather quickly. I can be a bit obsessive, in the sense, if I am researching or writing on a topic, I can get annoyingly obsessed and only think, sleep, talk, discuss that subject. I do think that all can be well with the world. And good intentions should be given their due. I respect experience, honesty, patience, diligence, ingenuity. What irks me is the sense of entitlement that Delhi has.
While I grew up in Delhi, I perhaps feel the most like an outsider in my own city. As compared to all the other cities I have lived in – Mumbai, Pune, Washington DC, Boulder, Colorado. I knew I wanted to be a journalist very early on in my life. And that’s all I have ever done for almost 12 years. I started my career with CNBC TV 18 in India. Went on to write on policy in America. And I continue to write on policy for Business Today. I also run a foundation focused on governance and women safety called the ‘Whypoll Foundation’. I am one of those rare, blessed people who love what they do!
When everyone is running after Success Mantra, why did you choose to tell the failure stories? How did you think of making successful people talk about their failure stories?
Let me just make a confession here, I have probably built my entire life around running away from failure. I have consciously always chosen things, subjects that I know, I would be good at or better at, just for the fear of failure. I often quote this example because even after so many years it has stayed with me. And I often think about it – I was in the fifth grade and I failed miserably at Maths, probably because I was too distracted to concentrate on a subject I was interested in but not good at. That one failure and the humiliation around it turned me away from the subject at such a young age. At a level, I feel sad about that incident.
If only someone would have told me that it was alright to fail, and I could still do well, my relationship with the subject would have been very different. I think from then on, my relationship with failure began, and I worked very hard to stay away from it. Thankfully, my interest areas coincided with the subjects I ended up pursuing. But the fact is that I chose what I chose because I knew I would be good at it and that I will not ‘fail’ again. In my generation, the stigma around failure was overwhelming. Hopefully, it’s changing now, but that’s what I grew up with. It was during my years in the United States of America where I came across stories, people who spoke about failure in the same breath as a success.
It was a very refreshing change. When I moved back in 2008, India’s entrepreneurial energy was reaching its pinnacle, and we all know failure and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. It was during a conversation with Chiki Sarkar, that we decided to write on failure. The idea was to make failure acceptable, inspirational even. Because just like success is not for everyone, failure isn’t either.
How easy or difficult it was to convince these hugely successful people talk about their failure? Did some of them have apprehensions about sharing their stories?
Acknowledging or talking about failure is a very difficult thing to do. But the self-made, truly successful people also recognize the role of failure in their success with as much gravitas. Thankfully, all those who have been profiled in the book understood the true essence and purpose of the book. And were as much a part of the journey. There were some who were initially wary and apprehensive and needed to be convinced. And then there were many who were as excited about the subject if not more. My first supporters were Mr. Narayana Murthy, Ms. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Mr. Shankar Sharma, Mr. Abhinav Bindra to name a few.
Were there any people whom you wanted to be a part of the book but could not get them to speak about failures? What were their fears of being a part of this book?
Yes, the initial list included about the 25 names, we had to scale the list down because I couldn’t convince everyone I wanted to feature. Their worry was the concern that they would get bracketed as ‘failures’ after being featured in the book. There was also psychological resistance to acknowledge failures. As someone told me “But, I have never failed.”
How did you do research for the book? How did you choose the people to feature in it? Did you know about their stories or were they revealed after you spoke to them?
As a journalist, I had an idea about the stories of some of the people I have profiled. But then there were several others which were revealed to me during the course of my research, which included off-the-record conversations with those who have been profiled in the book. As part of my research I read a lot of printed material on my protagonists. And I spoke to people around them to get an idea of their personalities, struggles etc. Those conversations helped me prepare for my interviews.
What has been the response from the readers so far? Are they appreciating the ‘Failure as a part of Success’ angle of your stories?
I have been pleasantly surprised with the response. People have identified with the stories, they have been inspired and have felt more empowered, more in-charge of their life after reading the book. Yes, the success angle is critical part of the failure story, because that’s what underlines the essence of the book that it’s OK to fail; you can succeed after failing. And failure is an important ingredient for success.
What has been your biggest learning from hearing these stories first hand from the people mentioned in the book?
That behind every awe-inspiring success story, is a soul-crushing failure. And it is often the ability of people to deal with failure that determines their success.
Did you discover any patterns of failure or the ability of successful people to deal with it?
Difficult to identify patterns in failure, because failure means different things to different people. But yes, if I were to identify some characteristic traits on dealing with failure, it is this immense sense of self belief, optimism, strength, will power, living by your choices and clarity of thought and vision for yourself and your life.
I know its not fair question, but do you have a favorite story from the book? If yes, which one and why?
🙂 They are all very close to me, I took away so much from every conversation. Anu Aga and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw are my personal heros, I can never know enough about them. In fact, their stories and lives continue to inspire me every day. Abhinav’s focus and ability to dissect and introspect boggles the mind. Prathap Reddy’s vision, Sabya’s passion, Shankar Sharma’s ability to fight back in the most trying circumstances, Ajit Gulabchand’s optimism, Sminu Jindal’s dedication, Narayana Murthy’s humility have all inspired me in more ways than one. In fact, today I feel I am perhaps a more evolved person, because of the generosity of those who shared their experiences with me and gave me an opportunity to grow and learn.
Do we expect another book from you Shweta Punj? If yes, please share what you plan to write about next?
Shweta Punj: I hope to write several more. I would like to continue writing around people, could be business, could be politics, but untold stories of individuals.