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The trouble with early success

Hitting the jackpot at a young age can be heady and hard to sustain. Young achievers share their secrets of dealing with the crests and troughs

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 12, 2019 08:29:40 AM IST
Updated: Feb 14, 2019 11:28:00 AM IST

Jennifer Capriati made a promising start to her career, but faded away at a young age
Image: Focus on Sport/ Getty Images

In March 1990, a few days shy of her 14th birthday, Jennifer Capriati appeared on the cover of the prestigious Sports Illustrated, hitting a double-handed backhand next to a cover line that screamed “And She’s Only 13!” There couldn’t have been a more fitting use of the exclamation mark, given that by then the American tennis sensation had already reached the final of her first professional tournament, and signed endorsement deals with Italian clothing line Diadora and racket manufacturer Prince that could earn her a potential $6 million annually.

In 1992, Capriati won an Olympic gold beating Steffi Graf, one of the greatest women players of all time. Exactly a year later, in August 1993, it all unravelled. She lost in the first round of the US Open and disappeared from the circuit only to hit the headlines in the months thereafter, first for shoplifting and then possessing marijuana. Neither of the charges stuck for good, but long enough to script a CV that read prodigy at 13 and broken at 17. “I burnt out, I’ll say it,” Capriati told the New York Times in an interview in 1994. She recovered to reach the top 10 and won a few Grand Slams in the early-noughties, but recurrent injuries ended the comeback trail after the 2004 season. 

The pursuit of success can be Sisyphean. The journey to the top is often fraught with the risk of coming undone. Consider prodigious Indian leg spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. Siva routed the visiting English team in 1984-85, when he wasn’t even 19. He was adjudged Man of the Series and followed it up helping the team win the World Series in Australia in 1985. Two years later, he played his last international match. Or actor Pooja Bhatt, who delivered hits like Daddy, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Sadak, Zakhm and Tamanna in the late-1980s and ’90s, only to fade away as she fought alcoholism.

The entrepreneurial landscape, too, is replete with stories of super achievers going bust. TinyOwl, a food tech firm founded in 2014, raised ₹107 crore in Series B funding from investors like Sequoia Capital, Nexus Venture Partners and Matrix Partners in February 2015, fired 300 employees in September, and another 300 two months later (according to media reports). It shut down operations the following year and merged with Roadrunnr, a delivery company, which was later bought by Zomato. PepperTap, also launched in 2014 and once one of India’s largest grocery delivery platforms that secured about $50 million in funding from investors like Snapdeal, Sequoia Capital and SAIF Partners, folded up in 2016. Opinio, a hyperlocal delivery firm started in 2015, had to scale down and was finally sold to Mukesh Bansal led Cure.fit in late-2016 due to negative unit economics and macroeconomic situations—labour costs were much higher than what the restaurant industry could afford for organised delivery fleet—despite raising $8.3 million within seven months of launch.


What causes an achiever to disintegrate? There isn’t a definitive answer but factors like the diminishing interplay of opportunities and abilities, lack of balance, monotony, all contribute towards it in some degrees. Many often fall prey to an insatiable hunger to achieve even more at breakneck speed, ignoring the virtues of a measured growth.

Rahul Yadav , an IIT-Bombay dropout who co-founded realty portal Housing.com in 2012, a venture that many touted to be India’s next unicorn (startups valued at $1 billion or more), had a meltdown after a public spat with investors. In 2015, he resigned from the company that was valued at $250 million, calling his investors “intellectually incapable of holding a discussion”, then withdrew his resignation, before getting embroiled in multiple bouts with the investors and the media. He was eventually kicked out. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, he admits that he lacked the patience and perspective. “A company can only grow that much in a certain time,” he says.

Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra emphasises on the need to have balance as achievers at a young age sometimes make the mistake of not preserving the passion
Image: Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times Via Getty Images

Says former shooter Abhinav Bindra, “Achievers at a young age sometimes make the mistake of not preserving the passion. You need to have a sense of balance. Being one-dimensional in pursuing the passion may be good for a while but, over a period, it has its negatives.” The man who brought India its first individual Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Games didn’t shoot for the next year and locked up the range at his home as the journey that had consumed him had ended.

“Achievers need constant stimulation. Mundane day-to-day living isn’t something that excites them. They don’t want to talk about Trump’s politics or the weather; they want to talk about things that haven’t been conceptualised yet. The flip side is, often you end up taking risks that might be unnecessary. It has various manifestations among which are promiscuity, alcoholism and drug addiction. Look at Tiger Woods,” says Dr Kersi Chavda, a consultant psychiatrist at PD Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai.
When a competent person can’t sustain success, giving the Doubting Thomases enough steam to gang up, it brings a sense of frustration that is channelled either inwards, making way for depression, or outward and aggressive, says Dr Vihang Vahia, a consultant psychologist with Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai.


Mayank Kumar, who had started Opinio with Lokesh Jangid, both undergraduates from IIT-Kanpur, recalls the ignominy of having to fire almost everyone he had personally hired because the company found it extremely difficult to raise equity capital in the second half of 2016. Most of the early employees were his good friends from college. “There were days I didn’t want to take any decisions. When things are going tough, it’s difficult to maintain a good spirit,” says the 29-year-old. 

Laxman Sivaramakrishnan made a promising start to his career, but faded away at a young age
Image: Adrian Murrell/ Allsport/ Getty Images

Former cricketer Sivaramakrishnan went through similar trials when out of his tally of 26 Test wickets, 23 came from the first five matches and the rest from four more. His bowling was beset with technical problems that resulted from a growth spurt in his late teens. That was the mid-to-late-1980s and Siva had neither a formal coach nor video analysis to sort out his action.

“I was practising for six hours a day but wasn’t getting the results, since I was making technical mistakes in practice as well. I would just come back, eat and sleep. I didn’t want to see anybody,” he says. When rumours about his addictions and womanising habits started doing the rounds, in a desperate urge to prove them wrong and seek popular validation, he started visiting the Sabarimala temple twice a year. “Each trip would be preceded with 45 days of abstinence. I wanted to tell people that look I am abstaining for three months a year, how could I have bad habits?” Nothing, however, changed.

Depression in itself is not a disease, says Vahia, but how you respond to it, is. “When people feel depressed, the same thoughts—like the fear of failure—recur in their minds. Some get sucked in and turn clinically depressed, but a large majority sit back and introspect,” he says. Meaning, when you are caught in a depressive tsunami, it’s time to tap into your emotional resilience, instead of being enslaved by the negativity. As Dory, the forgetful blue tang, sang in the 2004 Oscar-winning film Finding Nemo, “When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

Right from the day he was thrown out of his own company, Housing’s Yadav went from one idea to another. Some, like Intelligent Interfaces in which he was working with the government, didn’t work out, some he still dabbles with all day, and some, he says, haven’t yet come up in his head. Bottomline: He didn’t spare himself any time for emotional upheavals.

Parting with your own venture, of course, is far easier said than done. The journey of spending 15 hours a day seven days a week to zilch is emotionally draining. “Imagine spending time convincing everyone of an idea that they say won’t work. And then play devil’s advocate to convince yourself that it’s actually not working. But it’s better to shut down than be stuck in a stagnant, no-growth zone,” says Raghav Verma, who closed his edtech company PrepSquare in early 2013 to join cafe chain Chaayos as co-founder. Looking back, Verma feels 2012 wasn’t the right time for his idea and online education hadn’t built up enough credibility. Pulling the plug worked well as his subsequent venture, where he joined Nitin Saluja, has scaled from a single outlet in 2013 to its current 55 across three cities.

This hard-nosed practicality can be the key to bouncing back. Vikram Chopra, who co-founded furniture etailer FabFurnish with Mehul Agarwal in 2012, sold off the venture to Future Group (it was eventually shut down) and started Cars24, a used-car buying platform that has sold over 1 lakh vehicles from its inception in 2015. With FabFurnish, the duo had sensed that the future of furniture retailing was veering towards the O2O (online to offline) model, for which they didn’t have enough bandwidth. Media reports call it a distress sale, and Chopra wouldn’t comment, but he believes it was necessary to give their business an environment in which it could best flourish, even if it was minus them.


At times, a break eases the transition, allowing enough time and distance to evaluate. Bindra dabbled with numerous options after his Olympic gold-winning feat in Beijing, having lost his motivation to shoot once the bullseye was hit. He ended up going to a vipassana course to clear his head, where all he could think about was shooting. “It was an indicator that I still loved the sport. I also learnt that the outcome was never dear to me, but I loved the process,” he says. His performance in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he missed the podium by the skin of his teeth, was evidence of the hunger regained.

The impostor syndrome—in which an individual feels inadequate and incompetent despite earlier successes that s/he feels have been achieved due to luck—does assail an attempt to reset. In her book The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women, Valerie Young writes that the syndrome often appears when “natural genius” has to struggle to accomplish something. One can get around it by looking at the bigger picture and not mere outcomes. Says Chopra of Cars24, “A lot of people ask me if it is difficult to start all over again. To them I say the fun is in the journey, not the end. A new venture isn’t necessarily a reset.”

Raghav Verma shut down PrepSquare, an edtech venture, to join Chaayos as a co-founder in 2013
Image: Amit Verma

It helps to build a support network. That’s what saw Kumar of Opinio and Yadav of Housing through their respective changeovers. The core circle is also one that can put a super achiever in their place, and ask them to “leave that damn crown in the garage”, as former PepsiCo President Indra Nooyi’s mother had told her when she threw a fit at being asked to go out and fetch milk late in the evening. “Look at former cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli,” says Chavda. “One possible reason why Tendulkar survived stardom with grace and Kambli didn’t was because he didn’t have a good enough support system.”

But as abysmal the failure is, it’s important to repeat an oft-quoted cliche: This too shall pass. Says Kumar, “You have to take the situation as a part of life and not make it your entire life. Learn from all your mistakes and then some. It’s okay to commit new mistakes, but never repeat the old ones.” With his upcoming venture, a consumer internet startup, Kumar will be careful not to scale early and ensure capital efficiency. “Most first-time founders don’t understand capital efficiency. Having team members who understand this is a big plus.”

Communication, of course, is critical: With investors to iron out a disagreement, with industry insiders to glean experience, with team members to make them feel valued and responsible and, at times, with one’s own self, behind closed doors, should doubts creep up. But the biggest learning, as Verma of Chaayos says, is that one needs to invest a lot of time in learning. “Six years into Chaayos, we are just getting started and figure there is such a long way to go. Entrepreneurship is a high-stress environment, and one has to go through highs and lows to achieve that. There are no shortcuts.”

(This story appears in the 15 February, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)