Career Advice from An Unusual Source - Me

I generally don't get asked for career advice. This is because I did not have much of a career in the traditional sense, the big company jobs and all that. But, then, there are questions I do get asked - like why I never pursued a career in the accepted sense of the word - and I usually avoid the question [and depending on who is asking, quote Robert Frost: 'I took the road less travelled by and that made all the difference.']

But, personal eccentricities aside, there is a reason behind doing what I did. It was about where I came from and where I wanted to go. For a starter, I came through the vernacular education system in India, not learning to speak English even when I was through with college. My family, traditional and straight-laced, visualized me in some sort of a Government job, and as I moved through my classes and did progressively worse than what they expected, they started mentally relegating me to a lower and lower rank. They can't be blamed visualizing me as a government clerk: My continued struggle with mathematics left them no illusions that I can be an Engineer, and, my aversion to blood, after watching a messy street accident from close by when I was very young, ruled out the other safe career, medicine. In 1980's India, when computers were only for supergeeks and management for senior civil servants, I had given my parents a real worry being good at almost nothing.

Almost nothing that mattered, that is. I could do a few things though. I could organize cultural events and make disparate people work together. I could write a bit and put an amateur magazine together. I had a favourite subject, History, and I was fascinated by the books I read. I even had a career ambition: To follow my hero, Robinson Crusoe, whose exploits I read in translation, in a shipwreck and live in a remote island with a man Friday. However, all these made me appear more useless for any career, and soon, my book reading, event organizing habits were severely censored.

I must admit I had other faults too. I was too shy, too shabby and did not know the concept of courage. I almost never questioned. I adored my parents and were ashamed that I was disappointing them. My only flashes of brilliance in exams came when I had this terrible feelings that I was letting them down. Since some of these good performances came during big external examinations, this caused more trouble for me. For example, I landed up a decent result in Maths and Science subjects in my school-leaving exams, convincing my father that there is still hope for me: I was told to take up four science subjects in the Intermediate level and eventually went on to study Economics. In summary, my lack of courage led me to lead a miserable life married to mathematics for more than seventeen years [I eventually did a Masters in Economics].

But, then, I always knew where I wanted to go. I saw the remote island shores in my dreams. After Robinson Crusoe, I fell in love with Liza and was full of admiration of Alan Quatermain. If anyone bothered to ask, I would have said my career goal shifted to trekking down African Safari. Alas, people stopped asking me by then and started telling me what to do.

However, that goal remained with me. I had to come to it in a roundabout way, after spending the middle years chasing girls, earning money and dispensing responsibilities. But, even when I was a just-about-respectable middle manager in a decent company [whose logo and calling cards were admired in the marriage market, an important benchmark], my supervisor was shocked and dismayed when I told her, responding to her dutiful queries about my plans of career progression, that I would be happy to be posted to one of the company's remote operations in a country no one wanted to go to. I guess what cheesed her off even more that the form she was filling up with my answers did not have place names, only grades, ranks and designations.

Enough of this: I just needed to tell the story to explain that I also followed a career plan, though of an unusual kind. The reasons are simple - not just my goals were unusual, I never even prepared for it. For example, I never made a serious enough attempt to learn a different 'world' language. [For me, learning English in the adult age was a big enough struggle] I had not been trained for International Business, only the Political Economy of a left wing variety. In fact, I owe whatever I could achieve to technology, particularly to Internet, because that is the tool I used to engineer my career 'accident'. Whatever happens next, my debts will remain.

So, in context, what career advice do I give to people who ask? I must start by saying that I have no regrets. Regrets don't work in career. They stall things, rather than moving forward. And, anyone can take a wrong turn, make a wrong move. As long as one is not weighed down by what happened in the past [while being able to reflect on it and learn lessons], one can move forward. No matter what that person's age or achievement is, one can still move forward.

The next advise - develop the ability to reflect upon where you are coming from and where you want to go. It is alright if you don't know either of these, but with a continuous process of reflection, you will get there. Writing this blog was an wonderful exercise for me to reflect upon my own life and to understand my own fears, hopes, insecurities and potentials. The ability to reflect makes living a conscious process, which puts you in charge.

Next, I would say one needs to discover two things - Passion and Profession - in planning for career. If the two can be same, it works brilliantly. But, even if they are not the same, one needs to have them well defined. Both can exist side by side, and we have enough time to manage both. But then, a rider: a job is neither of those. If I have to try a crass definition, Passion is something that you will love spending time doing, and Profession is what you think you are good at. It is not easy to identify either of them. This is because we usually try to conform - I loved to write but never thought of it much, because no one wanted to give it any credence. But that was my passion [it still is] and with effort, I could have made a profession out of it. The conscious process that I just described, of reflection, helps you - step by step - to know what you really like.

Also, it is easy to confuse profession with qualifications. This is my next advice - avoid the qualification trap. I suffered much and lost money and time pursuing paper degrees which no one cares for. Knowledge matters, and your own abilities matter. So, don't go chasing degrees mindlessly. Start doing what you like and gain confidence. For example, if you want to write, just write. There are dozens of great books and good advice on the Internet which will get you started. Don't spend years on picking up a degree on Creative Writing.

Last advice: Remember that we live in a world of disintermediation. It does not feel like now, but the bureaucratic jobs will go. It is great that I did not take my parents advice and become a clerk: That profession will not survive for too long. In the end, what will matter is what you can do yourself. To survive, you must be able to do something yourself: Cut Hair, Teach, Write, Build A Website, Fix TVs, whatever. It can sure work at higher levels too - like doing Econometric models - but something you must know how to do, hands on. Days of being just a manager are numbered: Don't spend your lifetime trying to be one.


Subhas Ghosal said…
Really enjoyed your writing, it is a pleasure to go through the whole blog. What you wrote is the truth I too realized with my life.
Many thanks for reading my blog and leaving comments.

I admire how you structured your career though.

I was told to talk about lifelong learning recently in a charity I volunteer for, and I talked about a person who took up IT lessons late in life despite having a safe job in a large utility company and ultimately changed his own life :)

In the end, one person came up to me and said that the story helped him make up his mind: He works as a driving instructor now, but thinking of learning web design and start a small home-based business. He said he was in doubt whether he can do it, but the story I told helped him make up his mind.
John Doe said…
By the way if you do finally pick up the courage to go off to a deserted island, I hereby officially apply for the post of man friday.

Will accept payment in coconuts.
I will. I am getting an idea who you may be.
Anonymous said…
Sir,enjoyed reading the blog.Going through the name of Robinson Crusoe i could gather the name of my high school English Text"-Radiant Reader" & somehow enjoyed the feeling.Reading the blog i got more convinced on my belief that let us just not push our future only on destiny instead work hands on to build it ourselves..Wonderful it was !
Warm regards..
Thanks Shoma! I would not deny one needs a bit of luck, but one has to work for one's life. Hindus have these two things - Adristo [destiny] and purushakar [effort] - and believe that one needs to have both, working on one another, to shape lives. One can also connect Steven Covey, who says we should focus on things within our circle of influence [things we can do] without worrying much about our circle of concern [things we can't do much about, luck, or whether there is going to be a storm on the day of the IPL final].

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