The April Agenda

Before I could fully realize it, it is 1st April. Decision time! I have been writing about my journey through last few years in this blog, and have often written about my personal thoughts and career dilemmas transparently. It was enormously helpful, as friends and even those who did not know came up with suggestions and ideas to consider. It was like having a thousand mentors, with their combined experience and insight at play, and my journey was made easier in the company of friends.

Here is it then. I have finally decided to move on. Not right now, but in four months time, by the end of July, when I set the house in order in the current company and stabilize the business model. I have already communicated the decision to my employers, started searching for a replacement and put in place a restructuring plan which will align the business better to the objectives of the company and facilitate easier integration with Irish management practises.

To be honest, this decision was taken quite some time back - I made up my mind by last September and discussed with my MD in November - but what I have not done so far is to decide on what I do next. I chose, instead, to focus on the job at hand - of getting DE restructured and properly shaped, and set the date of 1st April when I start thinking about my own future.

Yes, 1st April. So I cross the threshold of to be or not to be, and now focus on deciding what is after not to be. It is indeed a complicated decision, and has various dimensions. The most important is to decide whether to continue to live in the UK, or come back to India, or shift to a third country. Then, there is this decision about what I do - work for someone else or work for myself - and what kind of work do I do. I am now balancing my future with my present, my ambition with what I like, and a sense of duty with a sense of fun. It is not an easy call, as I am finding out.

Interestingly, there are outside factors at play. First, this is a very bad time for job hunting. Things are getting better one day and worse the next day, and it is hard to see four months ahead of us at this time. This is exactly what I am planning to do. Also, I keep saying that I would want to slow down and have a different life, but I know how difficult that will be to adjust to. I hate my current life of running around and not sleeping/eating at right intervals, but there is a certain charm in this which keeps me going. I am not unaware that at least once in mt career, I was offered a desk job and I resigned. Times are indeed different and I am 10 years older, but a sedate life still goes against my grain. Third, while I yawn for life back in India, I am painfully aware that I am unlikely to get an opportunity - to work or start a business - in Kolkata, and hence the life I am hoping to lead, closer to my father and friends, will not really materialize. I shall possibly get closeted in Bangalore or Mumbai, which has its own advantages, but are fundamentally no different from living in London. Fourth, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was quite surprised to see the strength of reaction against the returning expats in India. I went by my own choice and will return by my own choice too, but my timings may not be ideal. As a person, I have learnt to live with failure, but also know that there is no point brandishing the learning from failure label in India. We, as a nation, have not learnt to deal with failure still.

Those who know me for a while will remember that I used to say that I shall retire at 42. I said this long before the dotcom young-and-retired crowd became cool. Honestly, I never saw myself making piles of money and go sailing. Retirement for me was doing things that I like to do rather than those I have to do. Like teaching or writing, perhaps, but I have never put a plan in place. However, I am couple of months away from my 40th birthday and I am where I am - it is almost as if God heard me out long back and pushing me into a mould he prepared for me.

Oh yes, I believe in God very much. I am not exactly religious in Hindu sense, but I have a personal God to have conversations with. It is almost that I believe that the God keeps trying to speak to all of us, but we can't hear because of the noise we create - with our egos, pretensions, false assumptions and greed; but then there are patterns which emerge in one's life, which can be seen if I am looking out, and it is almost like a kind father trying to facilitate his children's dreams but not being able to say so.

But, anyway, 1st April is what I wished for myself and it is time to take decisions, regardless of heavenly patterns. One of the slightly easier dimensions of this decision is that I shall choose to follow my own path now. This is easier because of the recession, the fact that nothing seems certain and that old attachment to plum job titles and companies all seem a bit superficial now. This may be counter-intuitive, but this is the best time to take risks. There is less stigma in failing when everyone else is failing - so goes the logic - but also times like this free us up from the attachment of false security. This is crack of the window beyond the mortgage thinking, a sudden glimpse of adventure in otherwise patterned options - this must be taken.

My trading off my own choices for what sounded reasonable started long back when I went to college. I was a right brain kid, good at conjuring images, writing things. I loved literature and history. My strength was in synthesizing and creating, discovering patterns in seemingly diverse events, and using language to express the thoughts. I thought I shall do well in Literature or History, but those two did not have any future in pre-liberalization India. Law was the only money-making option, but that needed long years and uncertain prospect. So, I chose to compromise and study economics, parts of which appealed to my socially conscious self, but parts, the ones which involved complicated mathematical modelling defeated me comprehensively. My results showed the pattern: In a paper broken into two sections, Statistics and Indian Economic History, I shall still score a pass, but I shall get 40 out of 50 in the Economic History and 10 out of 50 in Statistics. God was right there telling me to run, but I was too afraid not to follow the path set up for me.

I survived. I eventually completed an MA in Economics. However, all through, I was a fifty-percenter, an average, middle of the road student. I accepted mediocrity as a way of life, and kept passing exams. Funnily, the pattern was all over my score sheets, I scored A-pluses in subjects which required synthesis and language, and balanced out my consistent under- performance in Statistics and Mathematics. I knew this was called discalculia, and was so concerned that I talked to friends who have been studying education and psychology. However, as it turned out, I had no problems with numbers per se, and could even read and write complicated analytical pieces, but somehow mathematical mechanism put me off. A friend, almost prophetically, told me that my problem is with rules, and I shall have trouble rest of my life however good I want to be. This turned out to be the most accurate feedback I ever received.

My working life, so far, followed the same pattern. I learnt IT, and found it to be creative and fun. I was quite good at it, often competing at par with my peers who will go on to make very successful technical careers. But as I started working - and I did start as an Unix systems operator - the fun disappeared and monotony set in. I quickly discovered that I am a people person, someone who can do a better job at selling the services than keeping the systems going. Once I made this transition, I was on a roll. Words have always been kind to me, and I loved talking to people and learning and sharing new ideas. I made friends every day. I was not a very disciplined salesman, but I was so good that it did not matter. I was almost running my own little creative enterprise and since I was turning in more than my employers budgeted for, my flaws were less than obvious. However, I hated my sales reports and reviews [most salesmen do, till they become managers] and always compensated the lack of rigour with the abundance of excitement.

I shall not say that this did not hurt, or people could not find out. I eventually joined NIIT and had a six year stint with them selling education. NIIT is one of the most detailed, process oriented company I have ever seen, and I had a hell of a boss. Someone who worked more than 100 hours a week and had every bit of detail organized and ready for presentation all the time. I obviously learnt, dealing with her was like knowing data real time and having all correlations in my head dynamically updated all the time. I struggled, then learnt, and then became so good that I could fill a missing bit of data with a logical guess. This was my right brain at play yet again - imagination and words filling the void for numbers - but I was good and knew the trade, and got such guesses correct 10 out of 10 times.

I won't lie that I loved NIIT because of all the learning. I hated it and just stayed on to keep my parents happy. Many a times, I shall play games with myself and turn up in meetings and reviews completely unprepared, and try to fill up the space by assumptions and numbers. It was fun, because often I was challenged and proved right; those moments will satisfy my supervisors that I was not bluffing, but will allow me a secret laugh and a moment of pleasure in an otherwise painful job.

Indeed, it was not easy as I make it sound. My boss and others were incredibly smart and they knew their trade. I was good, but they knew that and they knew my weaknesses too. I could guess competitive moves and work out strategies on the fly, but they insisted that I work out the details and made me toil even for most obvious things. What I learnt in NIIT is method and commitment. One NIIT manager once told me that I start building my castles 17th floor downwards - an accurate description of the problems of execution I often face.

Why I talk about NIIT because this was almost my B-School, where I had to toil, had fun, learnt things. However, I was continuously doing what I don't like doing and setting time-lines for me to get out of this. This is when I came up with that 42 year retirement plan. This was not about making millions by then; rather, I wanted to graduate out and return to my patch.

My patch, that is really it, I need to return to. One of the options on table for me was to go to a Business School and spend a year learning the trade. But this thinking, which I conducted publicly here, tells me that it will be a mistake. What I need at this time is to try to become myself: Do things which I would like to do. I don't need another decade in pursuit of someone else's dream.

So, this is it then - I am not coming back to India this year. I shall give myself next couple of years picking up skills on areas which I would like to spend rest of my life on - writing, education and pursuit of a more just world spring into my mind - and I shall now see the world. I shall give myself 24 months, that will make me exactly 42, before the next step. However, this is the time I stop making compromises, for a logo in my business card or the allure of a fixed salary, and focus on what is really important to me as a person. Today is a watershed day - one that tells me to be myself.


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