Deprived Children Will Rewrite the Rules

Most great surgeons come from poor backgrounds. Dr. Devi Shetty believes thatís what gives them the fire to stay focussed

Published: Oct 8, 2009

Devi Shetty
Founder, Narayana Hrudayalaya
Free Advice
• Privilege comes with responsibility.
• Teamwork counts. The elephant is strong because it moves in a herd.

Devi Shetty, one of India’s foremost medical entrepreneurs, is an unlikely businessman. Partly because he is a businessman with a heart. The founder of Narayana Hrudayalaya heart hospital in Bangalore, sees the power of enterprise as a potentially game-changing input for making the world a healthy, and hence, a happier place. I am here to ask him about his views on healthcare, his thoughts on the power of the collective, professional achievement and visual thinking.

Devi Shetty, Founder, Narayana Hrudayalaya
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
Devi Shetty, Founder, Narayana Hrudayalaya
“Doc, you were a legend even before you built Narayana Hrudayalaya. Tell me about individual excellence and institution building. Why do a lot of competent people miss their intersection?”

“We have a large number of surgeons. Individually, they have the largest single experience in doing a surgical procedure in the world. Many have been with us for a very long time. They can walk out of the door anytime and get a better job and get better paid. But we have virtually zero attrition at the top. The reason is that they are aware that if they go out, they will not be able to do the things they enjoy doing. There is a lot of difference between getting a job and money and enjoying what you do. Now, look at me. I have, with all their help, built this institution. It is very easy for me to say that I have created this and it’s all me. You take me out of this institution and put me in a new position — I can bet that I will never be able to create what I have done. Because, for everything there is a time, a period — it can happen only in that era.”

“Doc, whenever I meet you, you tell me about the relationship between greatness and early setbacks in shaping a life. Tell me more about it.”

“I believe that in my own profession, the outstanding doctors of the future invariably come from a deprived background. I used to teach Karate when I was in medical college — that was my passion. I was totally focussed. Every six months we used to take a new batch. They were kids and some of them had phenomenal grace, movements and in the first one week, we knew that one day some of them could be the Black Belts. But most of them, in six months, dropped out. Kids with average skill and average grace and those who don’t impress you in the first meeting, they were the ones to become the Black Belts and go on to win the contest.

“The world is filled with extremely talented people. It is very sad — they just waste away their talent and the people with average talent mostly climb to the top mainly because they have the fire in their belly. Ours is an extreme profession. I am talking about the surgical profession that requires intense attention; we have to work 18-20 hours or else we do not reach there, and we continue to work like this for the rest of our lives. We take somebody to the operating room and if we muck up, we have a dead body on our hands. If you look at almost all the outstanding surgeons in this world, they are all children of a deprived background. All of them!

“You look at America — why America became a world leader and why they are struggling today. America was made into a superpower by the children of the Great Depression — children who were born during the Great Depression, children born and fed in soup kitchens — they have seen what reality is. The people of that era, when they were given some privileges, they always looked at it as a responsibility.

“Why I am optimistic that India will emerge as a leader is because the bulk of our children come from very deprived backgrounds. We only look at children from Bangalore or Delhi — these kids don’t matter. The rules of the game are written, will be re-written, by children of a deprived background. They need an opportunity. You have to just give them the language of communication with the society outside and they will change the way.”

“Tell me about the young surgeon who is already here, what is your advice to her?”
“One advice I give to my colleagues is that there is a great temptation to be a lone ranger. They feel that ‘I have practiced, I have patients, I can be on my own, I can take my patients to 10 different nursing homes and earn my living’. But I always say that an elephant is the strongest animal because elephants have learnt to live in a herd. If one elephant drifts, it is called a rogue elephant. There is a lot we can learn from the elephant herd. When we work in a team we may not get everything we want but we also de-risk ourselves. The outside world is getting more and more hostile and difficult, so my recommendation for all youngsters is that first learn the art of working together — you may have to make a lot of compromises. Unless they have that passion to make this world a better place to live in, you can give them anything you want, they are just going to trash it.”

“Doc, reflect on your own capacity to think visually. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. When you talked about the elephant, the mind exactly knew what you were saying.”
“Everyone thinks surgery is done by hands, right? And they give phenomenal credit to hands. Christiaan Barnard, the celebrated surgeon from South Africa — the man who did the world’s first heart transplant — had rheumatoid arthritis at a very young age and he had the most crooked fingers. But he created some of the masterpieces in surgery. So the hand is just a tool — like a needle holder, like forceps — surgery is done in your brain. Everything you create, you create at two levels — first we visualise and then it happens in reality. So, we always think visually, I think you are right.”
In front of me is the picture of a man who could have been selling fast food at an Udupi Hotel in Mumbai. That is what his father did to raise his nine children who grew up in Mangalore.

Devi Shetty is the eighth child in the brood and the journey to become the living example of “doing well by doing good” has been a long, determined stride for this unlikely businessman. I want to sit with him longer but I must say goodbye now so that he can attend to matters of the heart that await him

(This story appears in the 09 October, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Unni

    Sir, You are really lucky to meet a person like Dr. Shetty, who is living just to save human life. The real take away on this is passion towards work, dedication and commitment. As Dr. Shetty mentioned the doctors who are working with him may get better placement and salary, but not a leader like Dr. Shetty, and the work culture he creates. The most important thing which you achieve after a surgery is the satisfaction and that no reward can compensate that. Hats-off to you. Regards, Unni.

    on Jan 15, 2013
  • Vijay. M

    Dear Subroto, Thank you for that really moving interview with Devi Shetty. I think the reasoning behind the concept that the children from the deprived society will change India tomorrow is really good. Anybody who reads this interview will be left thinking about the √Ę‚ā¨Ňďdoing well by doing good√Ę‚ā¨¬Ě concept. Regards, Vijay

    on Oct 21, 2009
  • Manju Rai

    Dr Shetty's thoughts brought to the fore a wish-<br /> that is instead of growing up with hearing good wishes from our elders which say that all problems should stay out of your way, we should hear that you should always come out tops in adversity. Adversity for most of us is taken as an aberration, and not part and parcel of life, and something which is as important as the good times.<br /> <br /> Besides other qualities of Dr Shetty, he has this amazing quality of expressing himself so well, the metaphor of elephant, and the stories he has chosen have left me thinking....

    on Oct 11, 2009
  • Lubna

    Dear Subroto, Thank you for this beautiful interview in Zen Garden. It is true that privilege or even position comes with responsibility. I guess responsibility is a word broader in scope than mere accountability. Accountability is doing something because of the risks involved in not doing it. Responsibility on the other hand, at least to me, denotes walking that extra mile. Dr. Devi Shetty has certainly done so. Best regards, Lubna

    on Oct 10, 2009
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