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Will You Still be Working at 90?

How often do we come across an active, independent, full time 90-year-old professional? I’m sure you’re thinking about it as you read this, and most likely than not, most of us will answer in the negative. Immersed as we are, in our busy lives, we work deeply within the societal belief that an active working life extends up to and around the age of 60. With the exception of politicians and celebrities (The Dalai Lama, Atal Bahari Vajpayee, Dame Judy Dench etc.) we seldom have a reference point of any older professionals. I certainly didn’t think about it, even though there was someone present before me through my entire life, providing me many teachable moments, if only I cared to pause and look.

What does it seem like to work forever? With no retirement in sight? Out of choice?

In November this year, my father, Dr. C.M. Devaiah, an ENT specialist, turned 90. Ever since he ‘retired’ from the CGHS (Central Government Health Scheme) in 1983, and moved back to our halcyon little hometown in the hills, Coorg, he has spent 6 days a week, morning and evening, in his little clinic on Market Street, available to all his patients. They swear by him. I’ve often answered the phone to a desperate plea on a holiday or a Sunday. As recently as a month ago, when he was a bit under the weather himself and couldn’t go in, the phone rang incessantly asking for the Doctor. His fees are minimal.  For the longest time he used to charge Rs. 10 per consultation, and it has by now risen to Rs. 100 primarily due to inflation. As we are a closely related and networked community, many receive their treatment for free, for he refuses to charge anyone he knows well.

Last year, my father told me he would retire when he reached his 90th birthday. He had regretfully slowed down and was going in to work a little later, around 10.30 am. A few weeks before his birthday, I asked him, “Dad, what happened; you were supposed to retire, weren’t you?” He said, “Well, I thought about it, but I will retire and do what? Besides, my patients still need me.” Sure enough, it was very difficult to convince him to get off work an hour earlier to attend his surprise birthday party. He kept saying, “It’s Saturday, many patients come in from all over Coorg, I cannot let them down.” In order to maintain the surprise, I had to lie and cajole and finally threaten to make him take that extra hour off. It was one of the most difficult 20 minutes of my life.

It’s only on looking back that it struck me that my father is living an illuminating verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

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Getting Up, Showing up and Never Giving Up!

Aspiring innovators usually think of their destiny as a grand design of achievements. A big idea, a big effort and then a big cosmic impact- a comet flying across the face of the Milky Way with the entire world pointing out to it in awe. But if their deep driving desire is only connected to the end without the wherewithal to face the daily grind of the journey it takes to get there, well then, it’s a flaming problem soon consigned to ashes. Who hasn’t come across budding innovators who speak of their great ideas having sunk into oblivion? The reasons, in their mind, and perhaps in reality, are legitimate. Whether the universe didn’t conspire, or the market wasn’t ready, or the first flush of success blinded them, there’s always one big reason. And yet, the paradox in an innovation journey is not in the grand scheme of things, the big idea, the shock and awe of success. It is, once the big idea is conceived, about the daily grind: about getting up, showing up and never giving up. It’s by going after the execution, day after day after relentless day. It’s about surmounting obstacle after obstacle. It’s what I’ve seen every innovator I know do. It’s what I see my father do.

My father’s deep driving desire is service to his patients. I see a commitment to wake up, dress up, have breakfast and drive his dinky little Tata Nano to work. (He drove a first generation Maruti Suzuki 800 for 30 years, and changed over to a Nano only a couple of years ago. The colour however, remains the same, a brilliant tomato red. He says, “Patients identify me by the red car, so when they see it parked outside the clinic, they know the doctor is in!”) For 32 years now, come rain or shine, my father is at his clinic everyday. And for those who know Coorg’s unsparing 3-month monsoon, know what a challenge it is to be out and about in that dismal weather of perennial drip, drip, drip with no respite, while the sun is only a distant longed-for memory. Yet, he’ll step out of the old bungalow; weave his way through mossy, slippery wet patches to open the gate fifty metres away, then get into his car and trundle off to work. Every day, for days that add up to weeks that add up to months and years of dedication. No wonder then, his desire has been reflected in his deeds and therefore his destiny: An active, cheerful, contributing member of society at 90 years of age.

The Secret to a Fulfilling Life

My father has reached a point where he is now called ‘Karnataka’s oldest practicing doctor’. He’s only 13 years away from being the world’s oldest practicing doctor.* His patients tell me there’s magic in his diagnosis and treatment. Where’s the innovation in this you ask? Isn’t it the greatest one of all? He has found the secret to living a fulfilling life, one full of passion and purpose. If that is not the driving force of innovation, then what is?

And so, as this New Year rings in, and all of us turn one year older, and as we look back on 2015 and forward to 2016, how about we identify not the big things, but rather the small steps, the deeds of the daily routine that will bring alive our destinies, not just for the next few years, but until we are 90 years and counting!

Wishing you happy holidays, and the very best of 2016.

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