When I was a kid in school, the most pertinent question facing me was who I wanted to be when I grew up. I changed my mind every couple of months. I swayed between being a cop, an army officer, a cricketer, a film director, an entrepreneur, a musician, a painter, a writer…at one point, I even wanted to be a gangster.
Childhood is not dissimilar from running a business. Your sponsors usually get their way. So it’s no surprise that I became an engineer.
My parents figured, it’s normal for kids to explore different ideas and discard them at the same pace. So they remained confident and supportive, even mildly amused. Everyone around me was sure, it would come to me before I had to choose my major in high school. My mother secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) hoped for me to become a doctor, an idea that threw me and my biology teacher into hysterical fits. My father always gave me the freedom to become whatever I wanted, as long as I became an engineer first. Childhood is not dissimilar from running a business. Your sponsors usually get their way. So it’s no surprise that I became an engineer. How much that contributes to my profession and livelihood is another blog entirely.
But as time crawled up on my childhood, the expected flash of lightning and purpose never came. Some options fell out because they weren’t practical, others because they needed too much hard work. So that narrowed my choices and eventually helped make a decision.
But in hindsight, my professional life feels less like a call of fate and more like musical chairs. That’s just where I ended up when the music stopped. I suspect I could have been just as good (or as bad) at doing multiple other things.
This is the source of all the confusion isn’t it?! Most of us are about average at doing a lot of things, but rarely spectacular at any. Sparks of occasional, alleged brilliance can be attributed to heightened interest in something at the time, or sheer luck. Which makes perfect sense because you need deliberate practice to excel at anything. Only, you won’t clock the hard hours perfecting something unless it’s become your “life’s pursuit”.
There goes the vicious cycle. It’s like watching my pug, Whiskey, chase his tail at dizzying speeds. It looks great. We all appreciate the effort. But it gets no him nowhere.
I started a lot of things in my life and quit. I spent my evenings (and sometimes my classes) playing cricket, so my father had me signed up with a batting coach to see if I was any good. Mr coach made me play defensive shots for hours, correcting my technique. That was as much fun as doing squats in the gym. So it didn’t quite work out.
I toyed with basketball in high school and I was part of a good team so we won a lot. But I wasn’t good enough for an NBA recruiter to come knocking on my door any time soon. Plus basketball lost most of its purpose when it was no longer needed as the official reason to bunk classes and “practice”. So that was that.
I never had any stage fright so I was very good with drama and dance but that never… wait a minute… I never really took that to a logical conclusion. I guess I should have. But I quit that too. At least I didn’t run away to Mumbai to become Shahrukh Khan.
My English teacher in high school often encouraged me to become a writer. I loved writing any assignment she gave me. Probably because she was one of the rare teachers that smiled when she read my papers. How she ever understood my handwriting, I’ll never know.
In school, I liked some subjects a lot and was good at them but hated the rest and scored very poorly in those. So, at best, I was average in academics.
Our intelligence is no longer measured by the quality of information we possess, but rather by the quality of questions we ask
You are starting to get the picture. My childhood and early adulthood was amazing fun. I had great friends, I was popular…I had almost everything you want in high school. But I didn’t have the slightest clue what I would be doing 15 years from then… and it bothered me more than I ever admitted it.
So, a part of me couldn’t wait to grow up… because then I’d know for sure what I’d be for the rest of my life….Or would I?
My father’s generation had one thing that I envied a lot, other than Yezdi motorcycles. Once they got into a career, that’s who they were going to be until they retired. I am sure that kind of stability has certain benefits.
Skill sets remained relevant for decades. People spent years gathering information. It made them extremely valuable, because, well information was hard to come by. I think that’s why the education system is built that way. Students who can memorize the most, score the highest.
But today, all the information in the world is available on our phones. Our intelligence is no longer measured by the quality of information we possess, but rather by the quality of questions we ask.
Disruption is the new normal. Companies are having to “transform” into new businesses more frequently than ever before in our history. The IT industry for example, went from focussing on mainframes to distributed computing to the personal computing to handheld devices, all in a matter of 20 to 25 years. Big names likes Nokia, Nortel, Yahoo bit the dust because they didn’t change quickly enough.
People working in these companies needed to transform their skill sets with the same agility to remain relevant. In a typical career of 30 to 35 years, it’s not uncommon to see a minimum of three such big overhauls. The length of these change cycles is only shortening.
As a result, our ability of acquiring new and relevant skills quickly is becoming more valuable than our core skill in itself. Like any surfer will tell you, the ability to know when and where the next wave is going to form, is just as important as the skill to ride the surfing board. The timing of getting up on the board is all the difference between surfing a wave with a smile or getting bitch slapped on the face by the sea.
This is both exciting and unsettling, all at the same time. Learning a new skill can make you feel more like Sisyphus, rolling that big boulder up the mountain, knowing it’s going to get pushed right back to the bottom soon. Exceptions aside, most of us will have careers that will change many directions over the years, partly because of our changing interests and partly because of the relevance of our current skills.
This can be especially hard for people who thought they had heard their true calling and wanted to devote their entire life to it.
But for all of you like me, and I suspect there is a fair few of you like me, who were good (maybe not great) at different things, who always wanted to explore different lives, who didn’t want to choose between different professions because secretly they wanted to live all of them, and probably still do…these are very exciting times!!
Not only is our sense of adventure in our professional lives, more acceptable now, in some quarters, it is actually quite desirable.
I didn’t become an actor or a cricketer or a musician. But I do have a reasonably successful career in the corporate world now. I like what I do for a living. On most days, I like getting up in the morning and going to work.
If I did meet the 18-year-old me in a time capsule, I’d impart pearls of wisdom on the value of family, the importance of money management and possible career maneuvers. He would of course, ignore it all. I can’t know for sure if he’d be proud of me or disappointed. Maybe a bit of both. Although, I suspect he would be more keen on questions outside of my career.
In a lot of ways, I am the wiser and smarter one between us. But there is still one thing we share in common. The question of what we’ll be 15 years from now inspires the same excitement and fear in both of us. I am just facing it armed with a better haircut.