My boss predicted that I would fail spectacularly – here is what I learned

In June 2001, when I was appointed the Trivandrum City Police Commissioner, I was a disaster waiting to happen – at least according to my then boss, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) of Southern Kerala. The lessons I learned from what happened next, saved me later at Wharton and might one day, save your career. Hence I am sharing this story with you.

At the time of taking over as the Trivandrum Police Commissioner, I was the most inexperienced officer to ever hold that office – I had just 7 months of policing experience, managing a third of a district. And now, I was going to head a 10-times larger police force in the state capital.

Immediately after taking charge, I went to the IGP’s office for a courtesy visit. After saluting him, as soon as I sat down, he started ranting, “I don’t know why the government posted you here. When I became the Commissioner, I had 15 years experience. This is a big blunder. I don’t know how you will manage.”

He took the wind out of my sails – I sat there speechless.

I had gone to him expecting some words of encouragement. Instead, he predicted that I would fail disastrously.

Crestfallen, I went back to my office. But I decided that I would not go down without a fight – I would do everything I could, no matter how big the challenge.

And that is what I did.

When anticipating a political riot or a VVIP visit, most Commissioners would just approve a plan presented by their subordinates. I never did that – I would personally visit the spot, go through every minute detail, and dictate each step in the action plan.

I left nothing to chance – I knew that my IGP was waiting for me to blow up.

And over the next few years, we had a torrent of problems – political riots, general strikes, VVIP visits, you name it – and everything was handled well. Nothing blew up. The credit goes entirely to my team and I made sure to not let them down.

The average tenure in the post is about a year. I was there for three years, and by the 3rd year, I was experienced and mature. Hence, in the final year, my performance would have peaked, right? Nope.

I think I did the best job in the 1st year when I had the least experience because I was enthusiastic, and took nothing for granted.

This taught me probably my biggest life lesson: We overrate experience, and underrate enthusiasm and hard work.

Also, I realized that even if someone has a 10-year headstart over you, you don’t need 10 years to catch up – if you apply yourself, you can do it much, much faster.

But the story does not end here. Because years later, when I went to Wharton for my MBA, history repeated itself.

In 2005, I was the only ex-cop to be admitted to Wharton’s MBA program. While most of my classmates were very respectful, a handful seemed quite perplexed – what was a cop doing in this cradle of Wall Street bankers? Did Wharton run out of candidates?

Among this handful of skeptics, I sensed a superiority complex – after all, they had come from leading consulting and accounting firms. How could a cop, who knew nothing of spreadsheets or financial statements, match them in the world of business?

I would be lying if I said that it did not deflate me. But I was not going to let this pull me down.

Over the next two years, I really slogged. And I soon found that even in the toughest finance and accounting courses, I caught up quickly. Our past background made little difference.

Grades don’t matter in an MBA but it was my personal quest to prove that I could learn as much as anyone – and I graduated from Wharton in the top 5% of my class, despite my zero business experience.

I am not saying that it was a big achievement – nobody really cares about grades in an MBA. But what it does show is that “We overrate experience, and underrate enthusiasm and hard work.” This was the same lesson I had learnt years earlier.

Regardless of whether you are an entrepreneur, a student, or in a corporate job – someday you will face this situation: People with more experience will doubt your ability. They will underestimate you, and feel superior.

Or you yourself might feel overwhelmed when facing tough challenges. You may see all these experienced people, and wonder whether you can even cope.

Don’t let that get to you. Trust me, it won’t matter.

Just buckle up, be humble, and be ready to slog. Things are overwhelming only until you start. Once you get started, before you know it, you would have caught up and possibly, outrun them. It doesn’t take that long.

And if you ever feel doubtful, I hope this story will remind you that once you get started, the doubts leave. We have not spoken personally but do know that I am rooting for you. I know you will fight back. And I know you will prevail.

Take care and stay in touch.

Rajan

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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