The following story is derived from Srijan Pal Singh's book What Can I Give: Life Lessons from my Teacher
Late president Dr Kalam would often conclude his speeches to youngsters with one question: ‘What would you like to be remembered for?’ It was an uncanny and a powerful way of imbuing young students with energy and dreams. For both what he said and how he said it would leave the audience thinking, aspiring and as a follow up acting!
The first time I encountered this Kalam hallmark was in 2008, when I was a student at IIMA. Dr Kalam did not stop with that one question, however; he went on to share with us a list of fifteen career options from which we could choose our answer. I am putting down some of them for you.
● Would you like to be remembered for pioneering action in interconnecting waterbodies and solving the problem of flood and drought in the nation?
● Would you like to be remembered for ensuring that our country is self-sufficient as far as energy consumption is concerned?
● Would you like to be remembered for creating a unique venture which can result in hundreds of enterprises?
● Would you like to be remembered for leading a movement of a 100 million youths for nation building?
● Or will the future generations remember you for having revitalized the public healthcare system?
Later in 2009, when I started working with him, I began to realize that this was a common thread in the many speeches he delivered in schools and colleges. He would end by saying, ‘Tonight, before you go to sleep, take a piece of paper or your laptop. Write down the answer to this question and mail it to me. If your answer is good, I will send you an autograph and a photograph!’
Most of the students he met had posed this question at least once. But since I worked with him, I used to receive this question every now and then, sometimes once every week. And each time, after hearing my answer, he would say, ‘Oh, you fellow! Build on it further. Enrich it from the last time. Add more value.’ This went on and on for a good six months, till I reached a point where my ‘answer enrichment centre’ was exhausted.
I was simply out of ideas. One day, on our way to an event in Kerala, Dr Kalam asked me his trademark question yet again. This time I decided to throw the ball back in his court. It was part defence
and part exhaustion. ‘I have answered this question so many times. Why don’t you answer this question for a change?
What would you like to be remembered for?’ I couldn’t help but smile at my cheeky response. There was a short, unusual silence.
So I continued, ‘Let me make it easier for you. Would you like to be remembered as a missile man, a nuclear man, a rocket engineer, a Bharat Ratna recipient, a President or an author?’
I thought I had covered all his major achievements, but I still had a lot to learn about him. And that day I got a peek into his innermost thoughts, into the recesses of his mind. ‘All your options are wrong,’ he declared, taking me by surprise. I started recollecting all the facts I knew about him but I could not understand which aspect of his life I had missed. He cleared my confusion in the next sentence.
‘The right option is not there in your list. I do not want to be remembered for any of these things.’ And then, in an excited tone, he disclosed, ‘I want to be remembered as a teacher. That is my goal.’
It occurred to me then that I had indeed missed the most obvious fact. Back in 2008, Dr Kalam was first introduced to me as my teacher, and it was the most significant role he played in my life, as he did in the lives of many others. I did not stop my questions there.
I had one last question to ask him, to help me answer his pet question. ‘How do I truly find what I will be remembered for?’ I asked.
He then smiled and replied, ‘That is difficult to say because the true answer will keep evolving. But I will tell you this. Get a diary or a notebook. Give it a name—something which is close to your heart, something which will remind you of what you want to become.
Make it a habit to write down everything you learn, everything that inspires you, even things that trouble you, and everything you do to reach your long-term goals. Record all the small steps you take in your long and difficult journey. Especially keep a record of the times when you fail, so you remember your stumbling blocks. Note down the names of those people who pick you up when you fall—remember to be grateful always. In the years to come, you will look back at it all and smile. You might also be able to inspire others.’
The first thing that I did after that conversation was to buy a large notebook. I wrote about my dreams and aspirations. I named it after someone who will always be very close to my heart.
I called it my Kalam Diary.
--Srijan Pal Singh
(The author was a close aide and Advisor of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who accompanied him on his travels and assignment for many years right up to Dr Kalam's demise. Currently, he is CEO of Kalam Centre. The above story is derived from his book What Can I Give: Life Lessons from my Teacher)