Playing the Fool

Business 32 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 11 June 2010

There once lived a great mathematician in a village outside Ujjain. He was often called by the local king to advice on matters related to the economy. His reputation had spread as far as Taxila in the North and Kanchi in the South. So it hurt him very much when the village headman told him, “You may be a great mathematician who advises the king on economic matters but your son does not know the value of gold or silver.”

The mathematician called his son and asked, “What is more valuable – gold or silver?” “Gold,” said the son. “That is correct. Why is it then that the village headman makes fun of you, claims you do not know the value of gold or silver? He teases me every day. He mocks me before other village elders as a father who neglects his son. This hurts me. I feel everyone in the village is laughing behind my back because you do not know what is more valuable, gold or silver. Explain this to me, son.”

So the son of the mathematician told his father the reason why the village headman carried this impression. “Every day on my way to school, the village headman calls me to his house. There, in front of all village elders, he holds out a silver coin in one hand and a gold coin in other. He asks me to pick up the more valuable coin. I pick the silver coin. He laughs, the elders jeer, everyone makes fun of me. And then I go to school. This happens every day. That is why they tell you I do not know the value of gold or silver.”

The father was confused. His son knew the value of gold and silver, and yet when asked to choose between a gold coin and silver coin,he always picked the silver coin. “Why don’t you pick up the gold coin?” he asked. In response, the son took the father to his room and showed him a box. In the box were at least a hundred silver coins. Turning to his father, the mathematician’s son said, “The day I pick up the gold coin, the game will stop. They will stop having fun and I will stop making money.”

Sometimes in life, we have to play the fool because our seniors and our peers, and sometimes even our juniors like it. That does not mean we lose in the game of life. It just means allowing others to win in one arena of the game, while we win in the other arena of the game. We have to choose which arena matters to us and which arenas do not.

Shailesh, a portfolio manager in a wealth management company, has to endure hours of humiliation with his client. The client will keep telling Shailesh that he is a loser because he works for another company and that he does not have his own business. His client then shows off his wealth and mocks the advise Shailesh gives him. Often Shailesh feels like lashing out and telling the client to mind his own business. He wants to tell the client that everyone has his own criteria of success and that amongst portfolio managers he is one of the best. But he remains silent. He endures the jokes of his client. This makes the client feel good about himself. It boosts his ego. Allows him to feel he is smarter than others. And when the client feels good about himself, he gives Shailesh more business and more clients.

Shailesh has figured out that if he wants to win the arena of portfolio management, he has to allow this client of his to win the arena of emotions. So long as the client feels he is smarter than Shailesh and can crack jokes about Shailesh, he will remain Shailesh’s client. The day Shailesh puts him in his place, the game will stop and the relationship will come to an end.

At the root is the human desire to feel significant. To feel significant, one often has to demonstrate one is superior to others. This leads to people bragging and putting others down. Often this is an emotional need, one that can be quite annoying to onlookers but critical to the one indulging in it. Recognizing this need allows us to endure many an insufferable boss or client. Used well, this endurance does bring dividends.

  • Namaste, I really love these good examples or stories. Everyone can learn from them.

    Plan to visit Tamil Nadu this fall. Can’t wait to see all the history and temples of southern India. Although, I know it will take many years to see all of the temples known and unknown in India.

    Keep up the good work. You are good example for a novice writer like me.


  • Gerald

    Hi Dev – Great analogy!! In similiar instances in life, at what point of time, will you have to give importance to one’s own integrity over making other’s feel significant! Regards

  • Shah Dharmik Nitin

    Said correctly.This is one of the most successful ways of doing business.But at one point of time it should stop and the question is when?

  • AG

    Nice article.
    Someone said “Ultimately it is all about managing egos…”

    And it can’t be more true when institutional clients are involved. They want someone to boost their egos regularly through one way or the other..


    • Because they feel themselves significant and intelligent, the day public will show them their right place as “public servant” the people/ Govt. officials etc. around them will not earn any thing & leave him. Use RTI-2005 for every thing, which is wrong & correct it.

  • D Balasubramaniam

    Very lucid way of explaining the issue of “Choosing your Battle” and winning the War! Would be interesting to juxtapose this with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to evolve a more workable model for understanding the behavior of individuals in organizations.

  • Is materialistic success at the cost of one’s self-esteem, really worth it?

    • T

      No, if you ask me, there are few things worth the cost of one’s esteem and regard for the self.

  • S.K

    It sounds more Machiavellian sans values and scruples. Can you call it a success? At what cost? Why do you want that kind of a “success” at the cost of self esteem (yes, I agree with you, Srijith) which is paramount?

    Why suffer such an ignominy for the sake of a few dollars more! Would not your whole system revolt when you are unjustifiably run down?

    Ask Freud about it!

    It is very myopic in approach.


  • dhiraj

    what wisdom man you seem to have all good stories from the scriptures i am so happy doctor you took up being a mythologist otherwise we would have lost such good talent

  • Satish Gundawar

    Where do you draw a line with respect to self respect and monitory benefits?

    • Uday Vemuri

      What is self-respect? If this is respect of our ego which wants others to praise itself, it is not worth protecting. People who know themselves very well do not bother about their ego reactions because they know that whatever the world may call them, they are sure about themselves. As for monetary benefits, if again, the motive behind the benefit is greed, it is again a wasted pursuit because there is no limit to this greed. Both sides therefore have a problem and reveal human weakness in pandering to the needs of the ego. We must therefore neither bother about monetary benefits arising from our actions nor bother about self-respect based on view of others. As long as we are sure of ourself, we are content and actions in a state of contentedness are more sure-footed. Whether money comes or respect is given by others is merely an outcome of our action.

      I’ve tried to sound intelligent and ended up using too many words – not sure if I have succeeded!!! hahaha

      • NAGARAJ

        I AGREE WITH YOU 100%,



  • Vivek N

    Always i wondered why some people showoff to be foolish, when in real they are really smart. devduttji thank you so much for clearing my doubt.

  • Ypschita

    This is one story that has helped me see a current situation with an entirely perspective and now I am going to be on top of the game.
    Thanks a lot Sir for this beautiful piece.
    Best regards,

  • Harshad

    Its really a nice and moralfull story, but I have 1 simple question, if story is not just a story, but a real history…
    Who was that son grown up as ? do u know?


  • Kartik

    Good evening,

    somebody forwarded me this article.. this are universal truths and the way u have narrated is convincing. i will be happy to share with others.



  • Rattan Deep

    Same example was used in Delhi – 6,

    I would not agree with the analogy drawn with Portfolio Manager. The portfolio Manager who really knows his Job well and is honest in his intentions will not allow his clients to make fun of his recommendations.

  • the situation similar to the first incident works really well in marriage…when at times the wife has to let her husband take the credit for her ideas, or let him be content believing he is the smarter of the two..:-)
    in exchange she earns herself a lifetime of peace n adoration and obedience!
    but as far as corporate scenario is concerned, i do believe one has to draw a line it worth “succeeding” on paper at the cost of one’s self-worth? that really what success is all about?

  • Hi Devdutt

    I recently started reading your articles after one of my friends suggested me to. Your views about mythology nd your urge to connect them to current scenario is commendable.

    I can either go on reading your articles or try doing something in a way that benefits my growth. I have chosen the latter. Thanks for encouraging me through your views to start a blog, wherein i intend to put across the other side of the coin for each articles of yours…. May be this would prove to be a fresh step in my monotonous copywriter life! Thanks once again!

  • Like you rightly said,

    “Sometimes in life, we have to play the fool because our seniors and our peers, and sometimes even our juniors like it. That does not mean we lose in the game of life. It just means allowing others to win in one arena of the game, while we win in the other arena of the game. We have to choose which arena matters to us and which arenas do not.”

    It’s ironic however to see people looking at life itself as a game where they have to win continuously and face down. What we fail to remember is that we win/lose only to ourself! I believe that we can be let down or get upset only if we want to feel that way.

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Sir, I always read your new articles and stories…very nice I feel after reading that…thks


    Have started a blog – “Flip side of Devdutt’s views”

    Just in case, the readers here would like to have a look.

  • Excellent article and so true in marriages too, as pointed by dr.anuya :)
    but what is more important – being a fool or having a choice to be a fool ;)

  • amandeep

    you are so good i am great fan of urs
    its been not long i have started following ur work

    the way u relate your mythological examples with the leardhimp and management is amazing

    u work is a great enligthment in an idividual life

    keep rocking



  • Mridumesh Rai

    There is another different story

    Once there lived a chess champion in the kingdom of a nawab, though he was a champion, he was a poor man. the nawab was fond of chess and the champion was invited everyday to play a game with the nawab. in lieu of it, the champion recieved some money every day (say a gold coin) and that was the source of his income. always the champion defeated the nawab in few moves. but he was back the next day and the silsila carried on

    once the champion’s friend told him, “if u keep defeating the nawab, everytime, he will loose interest and stop playing with you, thus stopping the flow of your income” so just like as advised in the story above, u must loose some games to make the nawab feel good and remain interested.

    paying heed to the advice, the champion one day lost a game, knowingly to the nawab.

    the nawab was very happy indeed. he gave 10 gold coins to the champion that day.


    so the jury is out….

    best wishes


    • Sorry , story isnt appealing :(

  • The same thing was portrayed in the movie-Rocket Singh.

  • Vineet

    After reading Mridumesh Rai’s story, I feel it depends on the situation and your luck, what’s stored for you. You may end up like Devdutt’s story or like Rai’s one.
    But, I liked both the stories, but very confused in chosing the one for me. :S

  • Sundara Raman K

    Excellent article which emphasizes the point that if you are focussed on your goal you should be ready to compromise on other things even your ego!!!

  • Very lucid way of explaining the issue of “Choosing your Battle” and winning the War!