Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 484th story of Our Life Logs |
I grew up in Pune, India, in a middle-class family. My parents had corporate jobs and worked from early morning to late evening to provide for my brother and me. After doing this for several years, however, my parents reached a point where their careers were no longer fulfilling. They wanted to have a bigger impact. That is why, when I was 14 years old, my parents made an announcement.
“We are leaving our corporate jobs to pursue our Ph.D. degrees.” Mom said.
“Both of you?” I asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes, both of us. We’ve decided to attend school in the US,” Mom answered.
Leaving my brother and me behind in India, which was our entire world up until that point, was out of the question. My parents wanted to keep our family together so, in the summer of 1999, we packed our belongings and headed to Illinois.
Illinois was nothing like India. We settled in a small town without much diversity. Beyond our family, we knew of only six other Indian people. Our social status fell as my parents traded corporate jobs for graduate-student stipends, which barely supported our family. Unlike other families in town, we didn’t have a car and we could no longer afford some of the luxuries we had in India. For the first time in my life, if I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was frustrating but now looking back, I realize that experience helped me form the work ethic I have today.
I recall my first days of school in Illinois. The kids at school had known each other since pre-school and over the years formed friendships, groups, and cliques, which I now had to break into. They weren’t particularly welcoming—especially to a strange kid from India who dressed differently and spoke British English rather than American English. As the school year went on, no one spoke to me and I was too afraid to make the first move. I ate lunch alone daily. Then, I went home to further isolation as my parents were usually studying and my younger brother, who had an easier time assimilating, was out with his classmates. In India, I had been social and always surrounded by friends. In the US, I felt more alone than ever and slowly fell into a depression.
After living in the foggy haze of depression for several months, I recognized that I had two options. I could continue to live in my depressed state or I could do something about it. It was clear that no one was going to reach out to me, so I knew that I had to be the one to make the first move. I took baby-steps. I was interested in the debate team and I learned that another student in one of my classes was part of the team.
“Hi!” I said to him one day, “I’m Neil. You’re on the debate team, right?”
I was afraid that he might ignore me but, to my surprise, he answered, “Yes. Did you want to know more about it?”
Then, he told me how the debate team operated. We became friends and, eventually, I joined the team. Even though I was only ever a supporting member and never had the opportunity to do any of the big debates, the group gave me a sense of belonging. It also taught me another important life lesson—never expect others to say hi to you. Be the first one to speak up, which is what now, as an adult, I do with every one of my professional relationships.
Before long though, it was time to apply to college. I was excited. This would be my opportunity to get out of this tiny town and go to a campus where we would all be strangers. There would be no cliques and no history. I applied to every school that I could think of that was at least 500 miles away from our town—finally settling on Texas Tech as my mom obtained a position in Lubbock, Texas. This was a new lease on life for me and I knew I could make whatever I wanted of it. I decided to study marketing with a minor in management and, unlike most college students, I never once changed my major.
I wasn’t an A+ student throughout college, but I did well enough to where, after graduation, Dell saw potential in me and recruited me to work in their sales development call center. I was deathly afraid of working in sales, but I knew Dell was a great company and working there could open up many professional doors for me. So, I said yes, and in 2006, moved to Austin, Texas.
Again, things weren’t so smooth. I was a terrible sales rep! I’d call my parents and complain, “This is awful! I don’t think I can do this anymore!” They, however, saw the value in this opportunity and encouraged me to stay and work through it. While others who started with me gave up and quit, I stuck with it, and one day, things finally clicked.
When speaking with potential customers, I started to recognize verbal and physical cues. I learned to listen with both eyes and ears open. I read body language. I started to tailor conversations to the client’s interests. The more progress I saw, the more obsessed I became with understanding the psychology of sales and improving my skills. I stayed with Dell for 11 years and worked in a variety of their departments. Every time I made a move to a different department, I purposely picked a position I knew nothing about. By this point though, I was good at starting from zero and building my way up, even in chaos. I did my best work when I had an unbiased view.
Of course, not everything always worked perfectly. People often have great ideas but fail in executing them properly. While at Dell, I had many ideas and my supervisor gave me the freedom to lead various projects. My first one was a catastrophic failure.
“You have two options, Neil.” My supervisor said, “You can quit or you can take responsibility for this failure and learn from your mistakes.”
I realized he was right. If I identified the problems and improved on them, my next project was bound to succeed. Using this knowledge, I tackled a second major project. I built a pitch and it ended up generating millions of dollars of profits for the company. This experience helped me see that failure isn’t a problem—it is a teacher.
This lesson became extremely important after I met Ale, my wife. Ale was Mexican which, on the outside, might seem like a completely different culture, but we quickly learned we had many similarities. We both loved to travel, dance, and eat delicious food. We married and eventually had two children, Alexia and Mateo. Seeing how much I had learned from my failures, I encourage my kids to fail as much as they want. If they want to try something new, we allow them to, never chastising them if it doesn’t work out.