Life in an unLinkedin universe

I think I was nine when my father came home one day and announced he was buying a buffalo. Yes, you heard that right. Appa then had a regular office job; he diligently went to work every day, although his mind was always wandering into all the things he could do other than his job. This time it was dairy farming.

Of course it was just one of many ideas he acted on.  The buffalo didn’t happen, but that’s another story. My dad then tried being an organic fruit and vegetable supplier, a landscape gardener, a horticulturist. Once he nearly started his brand of pickles and chutneys. He also tried being a builder, but that didn’t end well.

People labeled him a maverick , perhaps too old to take these risks and wander off, like he did, into the unknown. Family members would advise him to hold on to his job and stop trying things he knew nothing about.

I don’t think it bothered him.

“I can do wonders,” he would say. They would laugh. We laughed too.

My father is now 80 years old and is a farmer. He grows things on a little patch of land in Zhadshapur, a small village in Belgaum. He says he’s finally happy waking up every morning and going to work. He also says he sleeps well and has beautiful dreams. And whenever he visits Mumbai, my friends get bright orange pumpkin wedges and red plantains as return presents.

The red plantains are his specialty, by the way. They are hard to grow, he says, and they can fetch a good price in the market, at least twenty rupees a piece when he last did the rounds. His last harvest was 100 plantains, and it thrilled him no end. Every member of the family has heard the story.

I have no clue what will happen when my dad learns to Whatsapp. We might get hourly updates on ladyfingers, custard apples, aubergines, and of course, red plantains!

Last year he made a trip to the dairy institute in Coimbatore. We knew something is brewing. Perhaps the dairy baron dream has awoken again. You never know. He will try anything.

When I was a child, I remember reading a book “Why I’m like Dad”. I found it on our book shelf and maybe I was too young to read it – it was mostly about genetics and stuff, but somehow the title stuck.

And years later, when I abandoned a safe and bankable career in the pharmaceutical industry to try a career in writing, I remembered that again.

I remember what motivated me was boredom. I could not imagine working in a Glaxo or some such, doing things on loop, where one day would be exactly the same as another. Not that Glaxo offered me a job, but you know what I mean. I then became a copywriter, and for a long time, my family couldn’t make sense of me. My spotless academic life now had a permanent blot.

I remember being a sales person for Time-Life Books when I was still figuring out what to do with my life. I sold a few books too, so maybe I wasn’t bad. I also graded papers for a coaching institute, teamed with a friend to design clothes for children from textile waste, tried being a yoga assistant, a tutor, proofreader, a research assistant. I managed a helpline for stray dogs and an NGO store. I worked in a placement firm, trying to sell dream jobs to people.  I wasn’t very convincing. And oh, I also co-founded a content management company and watched it go bust in a year. I wrote resumes, presentations and speeches for other people.  I designed visual aids for pharma companies. I later worked as a journalist, an editor, a teacher. It got me closer to who I was, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Was I trying to find my passion? I don’t think so. I was just trying to do a good job of whatever came my way.

Every once in a while, someone would say, “But why did you do an M.Pharm then? You wasted a seat!”

No I didn’t waste a seat. I opened a window. I couldn’t say this then. But I can say it now.

 For the longest time, I have been trying to construct the perfect answer to “What do you do?” The reason people ask this is to figure out who you are. But what if you are not just what you do? What if you there are so many other facets to you that you are unable to showcase in your job?

May be I just have an incredible amount of activation energy. I think this “find your passion” thing is unnerving. But I do know that I love beginning things. I am a great beginner. I have begun so many things so many times. Plus I know I am adaptable and curious; I can learn pretty much anything on the job. But when something is not working for me, I am incredibly good at letting it go. I finally know that it is a talent. In effect, I believe I am eminently hirable.

The interesting thing is: I haven’t been professionally trained for a single job that I have done so far.

May be I was not passionate about all the jobs I have tried, but I was curious enough to want to know how to do them. And once I knew that, I was restless and wanted to move on. I did worry that I had commitment issues, no clear goals, and all of that.

But maybe, just maybe, for some of us, there is no one calling. Isn’t it a relief to know that? Those of you whose hearts are singing right now, just hold on to that thought.

I am sure most of you were asked when you were a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was too. My answers varied from veterinary surgeon, lawyer, forensic scientist, dancer, film critic, singer, author.

Right now, I am a teacher and a mentor. I have written a few books, I tell stories and talk about finding your path. But it still doesn’t help me fully answer the “What do you do?” question.

I still wonder what to put in the “Occupation” box, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

At some point, I stopped tailoring my resume to sound consistent.  I stopped explaining gaps in my career. I stopped apologizing for my spontaneous travels. If people didn’t want to take a chance on me, they were not my type anyway. Jobs and relationships were similar in that way.

The point is:  What’s the harm in not knowing what you want to do? Why is it so defining? Why are parents in such a hurry to put their children in boxes? As a teacher and mother, I meet parents all the time, and they annoy me, most of the time. Parents of teenagers are especially a worried lot. “She has no idea what she wants to do”. Or “He is so confused, please give him some advice”. These are the things parents often ask me.

I love my students, especially the ones who don’t know, because I don’t believe ‘chasing your passion’ or ‘knowing what you want to be’ means anything. What will really get them far is knowing how to do a job, any job, really well. It’s amazing how rare that is. It’s like those red plantains my father grows. Of course, even as I say this, parents have this glazed expression on their face. And then I tell them, “I am 49, and I’m still figuring it out.”

We all know there are things we are good at. There are things the world will pay us for. And there are things we love doing. Sometimes the three intersect. But even if you get one of the three right, you are on your way somewhere.

Recently a journalist asked me in an interview about my new book: “How would it have been if things in your life had stuck — jobs, careers, companions?”

The question made me sad and annoyed in equal measure. We still believe that stuck is an aspirational state. That it is the default setting. That each one of us has to choose one thing we want to do with our life and stay married to it ever after. The next time someone asks me what I do, I am going to say Professional Dilettante. Hmmm, I kinda like the sound of it.

I am sure there is not a single person in this world who hasn’t had the urge to “try something different”. No matter what your life stage, no matter how much on track you think you are, no matter how much your job pays you. Sometimes, your inner voice urges you to go ahead, just try it and see.

And just as quickly, your inner pause button stops you. “Are you crazy? That’s not even a real job!”

I have been lucky, because I think over a period of time, my inner voice and I have become best friends. But for every chance you get to try something new, there is always someone who is willing to let you try it:

Someone who hires you for that magazine job despite you having no experience in journalism.

Someone who hires you to write ads for oxygen analyzers or mutual funds.

Someone who is willing to take a chance on you while you are ready to take a chance on yourself.

Someone who can see what’s not in the box.

I want to thank all those someones today who saw me beyond my resume.

But imagine for a minute! What if we all had a chance to try as many careers in our lifetime without being judged? Without being labeled, like I was?

Very often, our rational mind can make some mind-blowingly irrational decisions. We just have to stop getting in the way.  Sometimes life also puts you in situations when you make courageous or fearless decisions. Like the time I quit a high profile magazine job to go teach at a school on a hill. It took off a zero from my pay check, yes. But it added zeroes to my emotional quotient and gave me a rent-free and bill-free life for a year while I figured what to do with my marriage. To me, it was the most practical decision I ever made.

But what if we can make such decisions even when we are not in extreme situations?  What if we let ourselves try new things, even if we are afraid of failure?

Statistics say that 8 in 10 people don’ t like what they do.  Why do you still do it? What if you tried something else? What is the worst thing that can happen?

Yes, that’s probably what my father would say. If he can try something new at 80, anyone can. At the end of the day, half-hearted careers means half-hearted people. That means half-hearted relationships, half-hearted marriages, and eventually, half-hearted kids.  And all it would have taken to not make this happen was to try something else.

What I really want for the future is an alternate universe to linkedin.  Where you can look at the unlinkedin profiles of people. Where things don’t add up. Where people will share their failures instead of their successes.

What if every opportunity that comes your way is you? It’s just that you didn’t know it yet?

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How cut-offs, lists and percentages are robbing our children of happiness

Seeds of tomorrowBy the time you read this column I would have spoken about and moderated a discussion on ‘How to make your passion your paycheck’ at a career and networking forum aimed at women’s empowerment. I am glad they called it passion and not hobby. It somehow seems more legitimate.

It struck me a few years ago that I had got to that place where I could unflinchingly write ‘writer’ in the box that said ‘occupation’ while filling a form, any form ranging from visa to child’s admission. I couldn’t earlier, even though I had decided a long time ago that all I like to do is write. So I would disguise it as ‘advertising professional’ or ‘journalist’ or ‘editor’ or ‘content creator’ or some such.

I remember vaguely talking about following your passion many times to various groups of students at the school I taught at last year. They were in awe that I had a Masters in Pharmacy and chose to write (or then, teach English).

I met quite a few really talented students. One girl doodled like a magician. Another was a dream with a guitar. A third wrote songs she could make a living off. A boy made the best origami lanterns. Another did water color with the most delicate strokes. A third knew every species of bird in the Sahyadris. Another made the finest batik art I have ever seen. There were pianists, sitar players, basketball whiz kids, cricket prodigies, poets, botanists, tabla players, singers and dancers.

Somewhere I think they all knew that while their parents were ‘allowing’ them to indulge in their passions for a while, sooner or later, they would all have to fit into neat little boxes. Being old enough to appear for their boards also meant being too old to pursue your passions as if they were your life.

June and July are months of lists for students. Lists of those who make it and those who don’t. Except you really don’t know if not being on a list can actually be a good thing for your kid in the long run.

When I thought back to my days of board exams and the results thereafter, I was on every list. And that was my greatest undoing. Because being on a list and walking away was not acceptable then. May be it was and I didn’t really have the courage to walk away and pursue what I thought was my passion. I then imagined myself as a vet, a dancer or a writer. I pursued none. Years later, through a very long and convoluted path, I was glad I could still go back to being a writer. But it was too late for the other two.

It’s been a long time since then but the boxes haven’t changed much. Admissions have become online, but the cutoffs remain relatively the same. Or as my mother would say, marks have no meaning anymore; they are being doled out like crazy. But the higher the marks, the higher the cut-offs too.

One of the dear friends I made through this column has a son who has recently cleared his 12th with much flourish and was at the crossroads. The choices were many. Media studies, business school, oceanography, design, architecture and more. The parents offered him many options, and did their bit of research to figure what would be best for him.

The child was of course bogged down by all the choices, applying for admissions and the pressures of masculinity from his alpha male father. He turned to his mother for comfort. He knew she would understand what was going on in his mind, and more importantly, his heart. She asked him what was it that he really wanted to be when he grew up. And he said, ‘I want to be really really happy when I grow up, mom!”

And I think that nailed it.

We are okay with happiness as a byproduct, but not as a goal, as Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us. This is why it took me two decades after schooling to reach a point where I could say with all honesty that I made my passion my paycheck.

We are often putting our children into little boxes, defined by the marks they get or the marks they didn’t get. So our children are forced to say that they want to go to business school when all they want is to teach origami, or study engineering when they would rather be ornithologists or take up media studies when what they actually wanted to do was study rivers. So a great saxophonist becomes an MBA, a wordsmith becomes a Chartered Accountant or a food stylist pursues law. And they lock all these little passions in littler boxes which may or may not be opened for a long time. And in some sad cases, will never be opened.

I know I am not good at giving advice and don’t know enough to do it, but try not to see your children as the boxes they made it into and the boxes they didn’t. Because there is a lot of them that will never fit into any box. And that is what will eventually make them truly, really happy. And happiness is a great goal for anyone.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th June, 2015)