Messages from a Flattening World

By Beheruz N. Sethna

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Georgia Trend Magazine

Like thousands of others, I have been fascinated by Thomas Friedman’s best selling book The World Is Flat - A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Friedman describes global changes that are making our world increasingly “flat,” factors that are leveling the playing field for many countries that had until recently been essentially left out of the economic opportunities that America and parts of the Western world have long enjoyed. Inevitably, he presents the challenge of how we in America can prepare our children and young adults to survive and succeed in the new flat world.

Education is the key– if we do it right. And that means sending our kids a consistent set of the right messages.

Let me share my own personal example. When I was a kid in India, my father earned Rs. 500 a month. At today’s rates, that would be about $11 a month for a family of three. Even adjusting for inflation and comparative costs of living, by U.S. standards, our family income would be very, very low. I have no recollection of any “cool stuff” in my childhood.

My school uniforms were hand-me-downs. But in all the years I lived at home, there was never any conversation, never one question as to whether I would go to college and graduate. No matter what sacrifice it took on my parents’ part or on mine, no matter how much hard work it entailed, and no matter how many “cool” things I would do without, I was going to graduate from college.

Flat World imageMy mother and father sent the right messages.

In India, every potential engineer aspires to go to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). There is almost no parallel in the U.S., where students may choose from a number of excellent engineering schools; in India, they all want to attend ITT. It is estimated that only two percent of eligible applicants get in. In contrast, even Harvard College accepts about 10 percent of its applicants.

Four years before I could send in an application, my father clipped the IIT entrance exam ad from the newspaper and showed it to me. Before long, the IIT entrance examinations dominated my existence. In the summer “vacation,” I got up early each day, went to an IIT entrance prep class, studied hard the rest of the day, and did the same the next day – six days every week. As hard as it was for me to get into IIT, it was even harder to graduate – competing with some of the best brains in the country. But, today, I am an IIT graduate.

Of course, there was parental pressure. But is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I did not want to go to IIT – I did it because of parental pressure. Today, I thank my parents. They were right. I was 18; my parents were in their 50s. Was it unreasonable to expect that “Father and Mother knew best?” Between them, they had over 100 years of experience to my 18. Yet in America we often believe that, even when it comes to major life decisions, junior family members need not defer to their seniors. Yes, there is some value to letting kids make their own decisions and mistakes. But this is a more compelling argument for choosing a course elective or a car color than for a life-changing career decision.

Is hard work a bad thing? I don’t think so. Work habits I developed at ITT serve me well even today. People in other parts of the world are hungry and eager for American jobs and American business. They are used to hard work. If our kids are to compete, they need to be used to hard work, too.

When Bill Gates goes to India, he is a star. Kids who can barely speak English worship him and want to be like him.

As Friedman says, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears -- and that is our problem.”

We are sending the wrong messages to our kids. We should be working full time on an alternative definition of “cool.” What’s cool is not the cars they drive and the clothes they wear. What’s cool is having choices later in life, the ability to learn. What’s cool is being able to succeed.

Today, I am in my 12th year as president of an excellent American university and I owe it to my parents, their values, and their messages of hard work and perseverance.