Meet your impulses half-way
Many, many years ago, shortly after graduating from engineering college, I worked for a small auto-parts manufacturing company in Chennai. I worked there for around a year and while I liked the work, I deeply disliked the people I worked with. Everybody seemed out to get each other. Do your job well and people would seek to undermine you out of jealousy. Do your job badly and people would seek to undermine you because you were a liability. It was an odd, dysfunctional Darwinism that seemed to form the backdrop to everything that happened in the company.
And of course like any young graduate engineer trainee, I was miserable a lot, and stayed up in bed late at night wallowing in self-pity, convinced that all my batchmates in Infosys or Cognizant or whatever were all much more content than I was.
Ah. The vagaries of youth. It was only much later that I realized the point of salary was to compensate for the daily misery.
But I did learn lots of interesting things in that first job. The most enduring lesson of all, however, was something I really recognized much later. It was only two-three jobs afterwards that I realized the profundity of what our head of finance had told me.
One day I was in the office, quite late, finishing off some spreadsheet or the other. The only other person in the entire building was the head of finance, let us call him Mr G, who sat with his back to me in the open-plan office. The factory staff had long gone home. The contractors had come and gone. Even the housekeeping staff had left after tidying the place.
At one point I decided enough was enough. I twirled around in my chair and got up to go home. I inadvertently glanced at Mr G’s computer screen. And my jaw dropped. He was drafting a letter of resignation. Shocked, I said nothing. Mr G was the rock of the office. He had worked there for years and years.
Days passed. Each day I expected to come to work to see his desk cleared out. And yet there he was. Every day. Day after day. One day, puzzled, I asked him about the letter.
“Oh you saw it did you? Let me explain.”
And he proceeded to show me a folder on his computer, nestled deep inside his hard drive, full of resignation letters.
So he told me how despite all his calm and composure in the office, he often had very bad days. And he felt like quitting at least once a month. And each time he felt that, he would come to his workstation, sit down, and channel all that rage into a resignation letter. He would draft it, save it, and then go home. The next day he would come back and read it. And the day after. And so on. Usually within a week, he told me, he would realize that he was just overreacting. He saved each of these abortive letters. Over the years, he told me, he had accumulated dozens of these letters.
Why keep them, I asked. For two reasons. First, the letters reminded him of how he could overcome even the worst days at work. Nothing seemed that bad a few days later. Second, it helped him channel that impulsive rage into something. Keep all that anger bottled in, he told me, and it will just accumulate. Until one day you quit over some triviality that you later regret.
Fifteen years ago, I thought this odd. But now I’ve come to appreciate the virtue in dealing with that moment of impulse. And not just with jobs. But in all kinds of things. For instance, sometimes I am convinced we need a new television (we don’t). So I will spend days choosing a model, researching, and then putting it into my Amazon cart. But I don’t check out. I just let it sit there. A few days later, I clear it out. The moment of impulse has been managed. I do this for books, magazine subscriptions, shoes, protein bars and all kinds of things. And then every once in a while I will actually indulge in a whim. And buy a lock-picking training kit.
So if you find yourself impulsive about some aspect of your life, try finding a way to channel that moment into something benign. Something that lets the steam out without blowing things up. Meet your impulses half-way. But no further.