On the first day of class, a teacher will often ask the students to share what they did over the break. I was pleasantly surprised when, on the first day of my International Relations class, Dr. Hill Krishnan asked us to share our dreams. It may seem like a cheesy question, but anyone who knows Dr. Krishnan understands that he really means it. As someone who has always been determined to follow his dreams, Dr. Krishnan regularly blows his students minds with his incredible stories of perseverance and practically unbelievable and ever-growing catalog of achievements.
Dr. Krishnan has inspired me personally, as well as many of his students here at Stern, to take following our dreams seriously. Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Krishnan about topics ranging from his various career pursuits to his goal of reading 10,000 nonfiction books. I am pleased to offer the following transcript of our conversation:
Sarah Casteel: When did you move to America and what inspired you to move here?
Dr. Kill Krishnan: I moved here in 2001—August 9th I entered the country—and one of the reasons I decided to move here was to get out of my caste system in India. If I moved to this country, I heard, it’s a land of opportunity, and you could be anyone you want to be. This idea of upward mobility, and that no one is going to determine that [my future] based on my caste, [or] who my father is, [or] who I know. Nothing could stop me.
SC: Do you think you got what you were looking for?
HK: Well, the truth is different than what I learned and knew in India, and unfortunately as a professor of political science, I learned that upward mobility is less [attainable] now in America than compared to Europe and Canada. But, there is an exception, and that is immigrants. People coming from other places always have higher mobility—they break those barriers. I’m just beginning my journey. I finished my PhD [in international relations] two years ago, and I write books and pursue other avenues to fulfill what I’m created to do.
SC: Why New York?
HK: Well, since the Dutch occupied New York in the 1600s, it’s the only place in America so diverse. Even among a thousand people, there were 8 different languages spoken. And I live here, not just because it’s a haven for minorities coming from other places, but also, it’s a melting pot of ideas. The diversity increases creativity. Not diversity in terms of race, but in the way of seeing the world, in food, and culture. And that gives us a huge advantage—you’re living in the cutting edge of the world.
SC: What inspired you to start reading so many books?
HK: When I got married, I was waiting for a green card. Because of that, I didn’t have a work permit, and then my lawyer sent my papers to the wrong address. I didn’t know that, so I’m like, what is happening? What’s taking so long? So, out of impatience, I went to the public library. I was never a big reader. I picked a book about Lincoln as the self-made man, and it inspired me. He mentioned that our founding fathers were giant oaks—a forest of giant oaks—and I thought, huh, if he says they’re giant oaks, I want to see who those guys are. I went on to read about John Adams, Jefferson and Madison. I noticed how Jefferson changed the subject of his reading every two hours. My favorite book was Mind on Fire. And then I also came across Alexander Hamilton, before the show came. And I decided, I’m going to read like these guys. I set a goal of, humble at that time—humble but daunting—100 nonfiction books every year. And then I did that for five, six years, at least 100. Then I increased it to 150, then 180. Last year I did 300, and this year I’m doing 300.
SC: Do you ever listen to music while walking, instead of audiobooks?
HK: When I want to inspire myself, I will listen for five minutes. But after a point, it’s a margin of depreciation. You don’t want to keep listening to it, and then feel like you’re wasting time. You want to pump yourself up and then get back to work. Once in awhile, if I’m in the mood to dance, I listen for fifteen to twenty minutes. Sometimes I even dance in Central Park, just jumping around.
SC: I know you have been giving inspirational speeches. What is your message for us?
HK: My message is to be open to different thoughts and ideas—even if it opposes your view. Why do I say that? Because it increases your creativity and the way you see things. I’m a liberal, but I read a lot of conservative books as well […] because, let me put it in a simple way: Sun Tzu said that 50% of the success in a battle is dependent on knowing yourself thoroughly, and the other 50% is dependent on knowing your enemy thoroughly. If you don’t know the other side, how are you going to win in any debate or argument?
So, you have to know where they come from. It also gives you the strength to empathize. That’s the problem with most of the country and Congress now—they don’t want to cross the party line.
SC: What are other ways for YU students to learn from others?
HK: One of the things I could say is to start friendships with people who don’t have your views. Find a common ground and create friendships with those who don’t see the way you see. It’s wonderful to have different ideas and to carry those different ideas. It’s a symbol of having an elegant mind. You don’t need to come to terms with those different ideas. Why do we carry ideas? Because it makes into your mind into a prism, which is a lens to see things.
SC: So, what is your dream?
HK: I have ten to fifteen goals that I have written down, and I follow them. And every time one goal is achieved, I remove it and replace it with another goal. And those ten to fifteen goals—not all of them are career goals—they are family goals, health goals, and financial goals. I break them down into smaller ones, and keep tasks of what I have to do for that year, and I try to do them. One of my goals is to innovate something in the medical field, because I have a degree in ergonomics, and G-d willing that product will help people by either reducing mortality or improving quality of life.
SC: Are there any misconceptions about India that you want us to know about?
HK: There are many misconceptions actually. One of them is that [people] think that all Indians speak English. Because of British rule, they think that, but it’s not true. In most developed places they speak it, but if you go to villages, they don’t. In the villages, there are people who might be able to articulate a few words in English, but that doesn’t mean they can speak English. I went to an English-speaking college, and despite that, I couldn’t pass the test of English as a foreign language. I failed twice, I studied hard, and after about two years, I passed. That was my level of English before coming here.
SC: What can we learn from Indian culture?
HK: In India, the culture has respect for adults and their wisdom. Just for the reason of living longer than them, they will have learned things. In our society, older people are discarded, and youth is highly valued in media and in everything. That is sad—just because of the sheer number of years, they have more experiences, if not in knowledge, then in wisdom of emotions, that they could teach us.
SC: Who is your inspiration? Any quotes?
HK: Well, one of my favorite quotes is: “I will study, and get ready—perhaps my chance will come,” by Abraham Lincoln. It’s not just one person I have. I have many role models, and I take good things from all these people and try to incorporate them into my life.
SC: Any last words?
HK: People who are living in this country have a privilege and I want to quote the words from the wise Spider-Man movie, “With great powers comes great responsibilities.” So, please use that privilege, use your potential, to fulfill your dreams and impact the world positively, rather than wasting the privilege given to you. Because, many people in the world would, in a second, switch their position with you.
Anyone interested in learning more about Dr. Krishnan can find his memoir, Caste Away: Growing Up in India’s “Most Backward” Caste, on Amazon, and can find book recommendations on his Instagram @drhillkrishnan.
His TedX speech, “Who Writes Your Life Story?” can be found here.