Monday, July 27, 2009


It is axiomatic to say that ‘developing a positive outlook is the first step in the process of self development ’. However it must be clearly understood that positive outlook without positive action (or effort) amounts to daydreaming and the two must be clearly distinguished. 

The difference is as between Alnaschar and Pygmalion. Alnaschar in the ‘Arabian Nights’ daydreamt of the wealth he would make by selling his glassware. In the story Alnaschar was lying at a high perch and daydreaming, with the basket containing glassware at his feet. He would sell his glassware to make profit; invest the money to buy more glassware and sell it to make more profit. This process would go on and on till he became rich enough to seek to the Sultan’s daughter as a wife. In his dream Alnaschar had a tiff with his wife and gave her a kick. Only in reality he kicked the basket containing glassware which fell from the high perch and the glassware tinkled into pieces.  

Pygmalion was the protagonist in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was a sculptor who carved the statue of a woman in ivory and fell in love with it. The goddess Aphrodite (some say that it was her that Pygmalion carved) brought the statue to life and Pygmalion married the woman.

The story inspired George Bernard Shaw to write his famous play Pygmalion, which was made into a theatre play and a film twice in 1938 and 1964. In Shaw’s play, Henry Higgins a professor of phonetics wages a bet that he could train a cockney flower girl to pass for a duchess. The professor succeeds in training the flower girl to acquire the accent and etiquette of upper class society.

The second film was the famous My Fair Lady, in which Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn portrayed Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl respectively. In it Eliza successfully posed as a mysterious lady of patently noble rank at an embassy ball - despite the presence of a Hungarian expert in phonetics, who was also trained by Higgins. Wasn’t this theme replicated in dozens of Indian movies in various languages?

Shaw’s play has quite a few lessons for success seekers. The professor had enormous confidence in himself and his ability. Eliza was confident that with positive action (effort) she could metamorphose herself into an upper class lady. Her original intention in seeking to develop herself was only to obtain a job in a flower shop. Both succeeded because of their positive outlook. Remember the original Latin play was Metamorphoses.

In psychology the Pygmalion effect (a.k.a. Rosenthal-Jacobson effect or teacher-expectancy effect) refers to situations in which some students perform better than others simply because their teachers expect them do so. It is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. (Rosenthal, Robert & Jacobson, Lenore. Pygmalion in the classroom. Expanded edition. 1992. New York: Irvington).

The gurus of self-development are right when they say that positive outlook increases the chances of success manifold when it is coupled with positive action (or effort). The following real life story illustrates this principle.

Many readers queried about the identity of the sales manager whose real-life experience was narrated in the previous article. He dislikes identifying himself; but his name means Vishnu. So let us call him Vishnu! This story too like the previous one is from Vishnu’s early days as a sales manager.

Vishnu was based at Mysore. He was to manage a sales team in south-west Karnataka - between Mysore in the south, Mangalore in the west, Ranibennur in the north and Tumkur in the east. Shortly after his posting Vishnu had to induct Sri, a probationer at Tumkur. Regretfully he had to sack the previous sales person for malfeasance.

Sri was almost fresh from college, having worked in another company for less than six months. He was highly enthusiastic and a bundle of indefatigable energy. Hailing from Tamil Nadu, Sri did not speak a word of Kannada or Hindi with which one would have been intelligible in some parts of his territory.

Tumkur had a strong, well-knit trade association that was able to make or mar the marketing fortunes of many companies and was dictating to the industry. The association laid down a rule that its member retailers would stock only the first three ‘brands’ that were introduced in any generic category. The issue was so stark and so unique that it was a topic of discussion for the entire industry but none could do anything about it. Even the MRTP act could not be invoked as the association coached its members to ward off queries by claiming there was no demand for products except those allowed by it.

A few months before Sri joined, his company launched two new products that were not only expected to be large revenue earners but would also augment the company’s image as a research-based organisation. As all this happened in the late eighties much before the product patent regime, some companies had already introduced products in the two categories and according to the rules of the trade association Sri’s new products were barred entry.

Sri’s company knew the ground realities because of which, in fact it gave Sri’s predecessor only nominal targets for the two products. Sri was frustrated. For although his superiors would understand the situation, he would have had to helplessly listen to his colleagues’ success stories when they met for their regular six-weekly briefing sessions.

Sri discussed the problem with Vishnu. Both of them met the office bearers of the trade association to seek their help in resolving the issue. This did not help but the duo found that one of the office bearers was the dominant voice in the association. Vishnu advised Sri to court him although they did not expect any immediate gains. This went on for some months during which Vishnu counselled Sri not to be disheartened but to persist with his efforts irrespective of the results. 

Then there appeared a brief window of opportunity. The office bearer whom Sri courted indicated that because of a rift in their executive committee the ‘three-brand-rule’ would be suspended and he should try to cash in on it. Thus forewarned Sri immediately swung into action and worked like a mad man. He called on all potential customers every day and some more than once in a day for the next one week which amounted to 25 – 30 calls a day, three times the normal work output. Although Tumkur was a small town this was something only a person totally committed to his task could or would do. Sri informed his customers about the availability of his products and sought their support. The customers appreciated his sincerity and Herculean efforts (for once the expression is neither an exaggeration nor a mere figure of speech!). They were happy to support him instantly as they too were aware of the traders’ overbearing monopoly but could not help succumbing to it.

In time the executive committee resolved its differences and the suspension of the ‘three-brand-rule’ barely lasted a week but the demand created by Sri for his brands was so intense that the retailers were not able to revert to their earlier stance. Eventually they decided that Sri’s brands would get a one-off exception even after the ‘three-brand-rule’ was resumed. They had also decided that any new brands Sri introduced would automatically qualify for the exemption.

The story could well be an example of leadership or followership but it certainly is an example of the Pygmalion effect. The student lived up to his teacher’s expectations!

We are sure you would like to trace Sri’s path to success. Well, Sri followed his leader when he was transferred to another state, to a larger area where too he replicated his tremendous success in Tumkur. He was promoted but not being content, moved on to another organisation for a larger position and then on! He took up an overseas assignment and had a stint in Russia. (We’ll find out if he would like to share his experiences in a country that had sounded the death knell to a religion called communism.He is back in India for a high level assignment in international marketing. 

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