Adversity makes us more productive and helps us innovate, as nature often teaches us

If you examine anyone’s life from close quarters you will realise that it is always an unending endeavour to avoid adversities as we live our lives. Human beings, you will observe, are always engaged in everyday acts that will help them avoid, overcome, or adapt to the difficulties that life throw up. Adversities have a beneficial role too — as I learnt from nature, more precisely from a humble tree. 

The 1990s were tumultuous for India, with many economic and social changes happening. The government had introduced an affirmative action programme for the socially and educationally challenged groups of the country, and this meant some people were preferred for the much-coveted government jobs. 

It had sparked much discontent among those who were not beneficiaries of the new system and it was this feeling that took a few boys from Karamana, a sleepy suburb of Thiruvananthapuram, to Professor Parameswaran, a retired teacher of life sciences, known more for his stories from life which had a soothing effect on those who listened to him.

The professor made all the boys sit around him as he narrated an event from his life which he said resembled the situation that the people around him often found themselves in. Many years ago, he had planted a guava sapling in front of his house. Years passed and the sapling grew to be a tree. But, it bore no fruits in spite of the professor’s nurture.

One day, his teacher landed in his house after a long interval and the discussion naturally turned to the trees in the garden. The older man asked about the guava tree and the professor replied: “This is one of my failures. It is several years now but this tree has not yielded any fruit.”

The senior’s response was an unexpected one for someone who loved nature and all that was in it. “Cut all the branches except one or two,” he told his pupil. Parameswaran was taken aback by this advice, but he did not betray any emotion out of deference to the older man. That night he thought long and hard and decided to follow his senior’s words.

Soon it was June, and the monsoon brought copious rain. The professor watched the guava tree every day with its two remaining branches holding on against the heavy rain lashing at it with accompanying winds. It swayed in the wind and the roots became bare as the soil underneath got washed away. He spent hours looking at the tree, but to his surprise the tree held on.

July came and the green foliage that is characteristic of the season came to envelop the region as spring approached. The professor had to be away from home for a couple of weeks. As he returned and opened the gates of his house, his gaze went in the direction of the guava tree. To his surprise, he saw several green shoots from its trunk, and a lone fruit greeted him as he went near it. He rang up his teacher to tell him the good news. More importantly, he was keen to know why he had given the advice he gave.

The senior replied: “It’s simple my boy… the tree faced a threat to its survival when you cut the branches, and hence was forced to come up with adaptive measures. The new branches, leaves, and the fruit are its response to the external action.”

The professor summed up the story by telling the boys that if the bar is higher, we will be forced to work harder and innovative ideas will come to us as we look around for opportunities. He added: “I urge you to work harder, and take obstacles as a challenge. New doors will definitely open.”

Many years later, I was among a small group of people who were discussing over coffee the impact of the socio-economic policy changes that came about in India in the 1990s.

A software engineer in the group said: “The IT revolution and the global Indian would not have happened but for the socio-economic changes initiated in the 1990s.” He said people would have remained content with government jobs that gave them a seeming sense of stability.

My thoughts went back to Professor Parameswaran and his advice that day when he asked us to look around for new opportunities when a crisis confronts us.

Adversity makes us more productive and helps us innovate, as his lesson from nature taught us. On the other hand, mollycoddling is harmful as survival skills fail to evolve when we need them.

Nietzche was right when he said, “Whatever that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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