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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Good career for a good life

As I have told hundreds of young people thousands of times, a career (or ‘calling’) is something much greater than a profession, and one needs a good career to live a good life. A job or profession is what one does through all (or a very large part) of one’s adult life in order to make a living. But a career is not just making a living – not even if it is a luxurious living – it means enjoying life to the full. But since work occupies a very large part of one’s life, it is absolutely vital that one enjoys one’s work (and that means one must choose one’s life’s work very very carefully. That is why I like Google’s slogan so much – 'your work must be challenging and the challenge must be fun!'). The whole problem with most adults (my age as well as much younger and older) is that they are stuck six days a week, perhaps 48 weeks a year for thirty five years or more, in dry, dull, dead-end jobs, jobs that they were never fitted for, they never wanted, and can’t see any way to get out of! The pity of it all is that, often despite knowing lots of wonderful examples to the contrary, they keep telling youngsters that they have no choice, they mustn’t dare to make a choice, they must all end up equally bored and frustrated by the time they are middle-aged.

Now pause and reflect. Everybody doesn’t follow the herd into soul-drying careers. We all know that. That’s not how people become actors, writers, inventors, statesmen, entrepreneurs – or even great doctors and teachers and judges and soldiers. Lots of people have indeed pursued their dreams, often against great opposition and at great personal cost, and lots of them have eventually achieved awesome success, in terms of fame, wealth as well as (and above all-) self-satisfaction: in fact, they are the only people who are ever really ‘successful’. All around us, people are still doing that: look at Sachin and J.K. Rowling and the founders of Google (I have deliberately chosen super-successes with humble/middle class beginnings. If anybody, including your parents or yourself, tells you that ‘they’re different’, remind yourself that they were no different from you except in one crucial thing – they had dreams, and the courage and patience to pursue those dreams).

Also consider this: if mere money-making (and then shopping around lifelong with that money to clutter up your houses and impressing neighbours and relatives with that money) were the sole purpose of all education and professional work, a) why do most of us settle for jobs with basically piffling pay, and b) why do those who have already made such giant fortunes that they could not spend it all even if they lived at the very heights of imaginable luxury (like, say, Bill Gates) go on working furiously for years and decades still? – could it be because they have discovered what I have discovered too: that if it is enjoyable, then nothing can be more life-giving, life-stretching, life-ennobling, than good work? Is that why so many sages have said ‘work is worship’? And a third question, c) why is it that so many people have enjoyed life so much pursuing careers where there was never any chance of making much money: the Florence Nightingale type? Do they belong to a different species? Isn’t it odd that these are precisely the sort of people who are revered as ‘great’?

I myself haven’t done too badly by practicing what I preach. I am not a billionaire, nor known all over the world. But I make an upper-middle class living, and if you combine that with the other (very precious though non-material) benefits that I have gained from living this way – freedom, safety, domestic peace and comfort, time for the kinds of fun I like, the happy and grateful memories of lots of ex-students, and above all, enjoying every moment of what I do – you will all be compelled to agree that I haven’t done badly, especially in comparison with people of my age-group and income bracket, such as most doctors, engineers, bank managers or bureaucrats. If I want to become richer or more famous, I’d only like to be that way as a teacher: that’s what I have been since I was 17, and that’s how I’d like the story to end. So I, for one, can safely claim that I haven’t gone wrong by listening to my heart! Why should you?

To come to what I have been driving at all along, then. This post was triggered by something I have been reading in the papers lately. Now that India’s economy is booming (in a certain sense, at least), an increasing number of IIT and/or IIM graduates are chucking up big-pay jobs from very big companies Indian and foreign to ‘do their own thing’. See, for instance, page 5 of The Telegraph, March 28. They are the new breed of entrepreneurs, following in the footsteps of what only the sahibs dared to do once upon a time (the Edison and Brunel and Nobel type) but the Mittals and Premjis and Narayan Murthys have shown to be achievable by Indians too. They are setting up their own firms right and left, opening up new markets, launching new products – everything from idli franchises to tutorials to multimedia-designing outfits – and they are dreaming of making it big, really big, in the Indian as well as global market in ten or twenty years time. I know a bit of history, so I feel a great pity to think that the IITs and IIMs were set up precisely to create educated entrepreneurs, job-givers and not job-seekers. Our status/security/ease-hunting middle class have uniformly abused them, at great cost to the nation, for 50-odd years! No matter: it’s better late than never. Perhaps there are among my own old boys and girls – now pursuing technical or commercial courses in college, or just beginning their working lives – who might be dreaming right now of doing great things instead of becoming fat and lazy pen-pushers or glorified mechanics? Maybe some of them will be the top bosses of giant new MNCs 20 years from now! I wanted to say ‘good luck’ to them, and to tell them that they MUST pursue their dreams no matter what. And I would like to add one more thing which might not be unimportant. When you folks are looking for your first ‘angels’ (or ‘venture capitalists’ – people who would want to risk their hard earned savings by investing in fledgling companies with big dreams), think of me. Vinod Khosla became a billionaire investing in giants like SUN Microsystems at startup-time. Nothing would please me more than to see that a couple of companies started up by my own ex-students, in which I invested a few lakhs, have made me both rich and famous in old age! - and remember, boys and girls, it's not the boys who got the most marks in school who usually become the superstars in later life, but the bravest, cleverest, most industrious and ambitious ones!


Atoorva said...

I agree that 'your work must be challenging and the challenge must be fun!'.have you seen the ad for monster.com (cought in a wrong job?)....however, for many youngesters the choice of career is made either by parents or on the basis of first impressions(gathered from not so reliable sources like media!). Its a tough question ...whether to take risk and wait for your dream-job to come or to take whatever comes your way ! Most prefer the latter...its SAFE after all, at least in the material terms.And as a result you find many 30-somethings, very pessimistic about their job and life in general. My idea is to jump from the train as and when you realise you're in the wrong one. Follow your dreams and let your destiny follow you...easier said than done ..I know...but then it takes courage to grow up and become WHAT YOU ARE! What do you say?

RAUNAK said...

Sir,i have always loved to hear you speak because you are one person who has always stressed on the fact that one should chase his or her dreams,and the rest(money,fame etc)will follow.
As for me , at a very small age i understood that i will always chase my dreams... and after some of the experiences i am even more convinced that i will never walk with the herd.
I will surely live up to your expectations ,and in a way prove you right, so that in the years to come you can also put me as an example to others...

sayan sarkar said...

Sir, I am absolutely in agreement with what you said about the reason behind setting up of the IITs and the IIMs: to produce entrepreneurs and not salaried rat-racers.
But Sir, standing at the verge of the completion of my stay in IIT, I have found over these four years that many students from IITs/IIMs do actually end up doing what they like.
A large percentage of the people behind the Silicon ValLey start-ups were actually IIT graduates, and every other day we come to know about IIM graduates who go for new ventures, shunning lucrative pay packages.
Also, in order to become a successful entrepreneur, one needs to understand and appreciate technology and business first, and such opportunity only comes if one works for a reasonable amount of time in the industry ( most entrepreneurs actually are not college-flunking whiz-kids, but clever people who have learnt the tricks of good business and great technology by actually working in great places).
And on another hand, many of by batchmates here at IIT go for their PhD in areas of cutting-edge research, and a large number of them end up in faculty positions abroad ( and some here in the IITs), notwithstanding the fact that they couild have easily landed up pay-packets thrice as thick had they not pursued a PhD and went for "gainful employment" the conventional way.

Ankan said...

I would agree with what Sayan said to a very large extent. Getting a job had never been a thing on my mind( or for that matter on the minds of most people around) during the four years at IIT. However you cannot expect an institute to churn out batches full of entrepreneurs. Most of the people in my batch have gone for jobs..they have had ample opportunities to decide and actually opt for jobs in the areas they are interested in. However, I would purposefully a bit harsh to say that if thirty years down the line they feel they are stuck in something that they don't want to do- it's their fault not to have made a correct choice early in the twenties. I don't see who else these people have to blame.
However, I would like to point out another scenario which a number of other people have already pointed out- when we are actually young and in school- what career we choose is decided in most cases by parents and in most middle class surroundings the choice is one that guarantees security and an ample pay. Probably it hints their weaknesses to some extent and as Mayuri has pointed out they would automatically want their children to opt for conventional careers with ample security. I don't see how this scenario can change at all. Following the herd is what most people do- everybody starting to do "different" things seems both statistically and logically impossible- as what will then happen to the herd? Throughout time, it's always been a few people (examples being the names you mentioned and many more, however they would still be a very small minority) and those few people continue to exist even today amidst the masses.
However parents from a middle class household can take a bold stand once in a while- and allow children to do things that they enjoy to a greater extent.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, I agree with you guys absolutely. All my efforts are directed at two things: a) ensuring that that tiny minority grows a little less tiny, b) the herd starts regarding them less as wrongheaded madmen and more as men worthy of genuine admiration! As for the IITs/IIMs, if they together produced ten Narayan Murthys per decade - and maybe two of the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Andy Grove/Sergey Brin calibre, I'd be more than happy: if a couple of those were my old boys who remembered the connection happily, that would make my day!

Arani said...

I will post something very down to earth and honest. When I pursued my academic career studying English, I spent every moment trying to remember and emulate my teachers, some of whom were fantastic and some were quite ordinary. I tried to rehearse my learning in a way that a teacher would in a class room. I felt that I was destined to become a teacher. I did teach for sometime. There were some who were inspired( I taught a young man at Baruipur College who has got a first class in his Part 1 exams, he still calls me to ask questions whose answers I have sadly forgotten), there were others who prtetended a lot, took advantage of me, cared only for notes and have conveniently forgotten me. Again, there are some who have kept in otuch for reasons that go beyond the course that I taught them. Eventually, I became a marketing person for a publishing house. I am learning new things over here and I have also seen that there is a class of professionals who behave like mercenaries. A mercenary like Shaw's Bluntschli does his job because he has to. Ideally he would loaf around or remain idle; yet, once into his job he does it 'well' but without any sense of belonging or devotion to the people he works for or with. My fear is that The system will turn me into a mercenary. I spent my last week end with you and I realised that the real challenge in any career is to not succumb and become a mercenary- a hired private who may always not be rescued from his cynicism and disgust by good looking and affluent women like Raina Petkoff or an unlikekly student from the suburbs.One may not always be as competent as you are and may be temporarily or even worse permanently compelled into a profession one doesn't quite admire and yet need not become a mercenary. To that end one needs and desperately so, people like you to help clear the cobwebs