Rama Ramakrishnan Honors 20 Under 20, Urges Them to Explore Intrinsic Ability, Growth and Obsession for Success

Rana Ranakrishnan (Photo: Rasik Mehta)
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WALTHAM, MA—MIT Professor and Boston tech entrepreneur Rama Ramakrishnan last week honored 20 Under 20 stars, and urged them to follow and explore “Ability, Growth and Obsession” for success in the future.

At the annual breakfast summit of 20 Under 20, produced and organized annually by INDIA New England News, Prof. Ramakrishnan served as the Chief Guest and the Keynote speaker. The event was held on Dec. 14 at Westin Hotel in Waltham, MA. Emcees were Emma Elliston and Radhika Mishra. (Photos by Rasik Mehta.)

Click here to read bios of 20 Under 20 stars.

Click here to view 20 Under 20 awards ceremony in photos.


(Photo: Rasik Mehta)

“First things first. I want to offer my congratulations to all the award recipients. I read through your bios and am very impressed and inspired by your passion, talent, hard work, and most importantly your concern for the welfare of others,” said Ramakrishnan. “You all know that your success wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a whole ecosystem of people: parents, relatives, and friends. Let’s give them all an even bigger round of applause.”

He told the young stars that they had great accomplishments, abundant talent and a strong work ethic, but it may not have occurred to them yet that this is actually a big problem.

“Why?  Because of your outstanding qualities, the world will put a lot of very interesting opportunities in front of you. At every turn, in college and beyond, you will have to choose between things that all seem really interesting and worthwhile. Sure, this is a high-class problem, as they say, but it is nevertheless a problem you will need to solve,” said Ramakrishnan. “So as a high-schooler or a fresh grad, how do you make sure that you make choices that realize the great potential you clearly have and that makes you happy and fulfilled?”

He said each of them is unique and that they need to find that answer on their own.

“However, I want to share with you a simple framework that may help you in your search for the right thing for you. I call it the IGO principle (I know it is a cheesy acronym but bear with me). In my own life, whenever I have paid heed to this, things have worked out. When I have overlooked it, I have come to regret it,” said Ramakrishnan.

He said IGO has three key ingredients:

I for Intrinsic Ability

G for Growth

O for Obsession.

“I is for Intrinsic Ability. The idea is simply to pursue things that you see to have an intrinsic ability for. This is hardly a profound insight. In fact, it is super obvious. So why am I even bringing it up?,” said Ramakrishnan. “Because we discount the things that we have an intrinsic ability for. If you are able to pick up new songs quickly and someone points it out, your reaction may be “Oh, it is nothing. It is no big deal”. If you are able to effortlessly convince your friends to donate their time for a cause while others are breaking into a cold sweat wondering how to approach that first person, you have an intrinsic ability to persuade people. But if someone points it out, it may not even strike you as anything special.

“In other words, we overlook the things we are naturally good at. So, keep your internal radar on high alert for things that come automatically to you. And when you find something like that, invest your time heavily in going deeper, becoming better, becoming world-class,” he added.

“Don’t focus on the things where you are average at best and try to become good at them. Focus on the things that you are ‘sorta’ good at without even trying and become great at them.”

Here are the excerpts from rest of his speech:

“This will be the hardest thing for you to accept. Because we all want to excel at many things. But this change in focus will put you on the path to being great rather than just being good.

That’s Intrinsic Ability. Now, let’s look at the G in IGO.

Master of ceremonies from left to right: Emma Elliston and Radhika Mishra (Photo: Rasik Mehta)

G stands for Growth.

As you look for things that come easily to you, in the back of your mind, always be asking yourself: “Is this an area growing in importance and interest?”


If an area is growing, it will receive a lot of investment, interest, excitement even. And this rising tide will lift all boats, including your own. Or, to use another metaphor, you will have a strong tailwind propelling you forward.

Conversely, mature or declining areas may drag you down with them, despite your amazing contributions. And, sadly, you may not get credit and recognition for your hard work and talent.

To state it differently, growth is a multiplier of your talent and effort. You want this multiplier to be as big as possible.

That brings us to the O in IGO.

O is for Obsession.

Let’s say you find something that you seem to have Intrinsic Ability for and it is in an area that’s booming. Is that enough?

Almost but not quite.

You need to be obsessed by it. Your brain shouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it.  It is almost as if you can’t control your brain. It wants to think about it all the time, in the shower, while walking to school, etc.

The best people in any area tend to be this way. Of course, they are talented and work hard, just like you do. But they are obsessed with their area of interest. And if you want to be among them, you need to be that way.

If you are lucky enough to be obsessed about an area, you are in for a treat. The distinctions between work and non-work fade away and life becomes more fulfilling and enjoyable.

I am not saying that you should do just one thing and nothing else. It is important to have time for leisure and recreation. But your area of interest should always be “hanging around” in your brain’s background process.

One great way to identify the things that your brain is naturally drawn to is to look for things that you spend time on that others think are weird. For example, I love to read technical papers on machine learning and optimization. Literally, I’d rather curl up with a paper than curl up with a novel at the end of a long day. It is definitely weird – you should ask my family about it – but that’s what my brain is naturally drawn to.

Another great indicator is when you don’t notice time passing when you are engaging in an activity. You spend 3 hours on it and it feels like you just started it. That’s a good one to look into.

So there you have it.  When you are faced with a choice, ask yourself: which choice satisfies IGO and which doesn’t? Choose accordingly.

I can’t wait to see what you will accomplish in the years to come. May your dreams come true. Thank you and good luck.”


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