I don’t know whether it can be granted the official status of “trend” yet, but in the last few years, I have seen a fairly large number of executives give up high-paid jobs and choose a different life. I am not talking about successful managers who chose to turn entrepreneurs. The people I am talking about are ones who seem to have taken a sharp right turn off their career paths and opted out of the corporate rodent rush.
One marketing boss I know woke up one morning, tallied up his savings and investments and decided that he had enough to retire on. Within a few months, he had bought a small house in a Goa village, refurbished it and settled there. Periodically, he posts on Facebook about sitting on the porch in the lovely moonlight or about how good the pork vindaloo he had made for lunch was.
I remember a lunch I had with one of my business school classmates many years ago. Our batch of MBAs had by then spent six or seven years in the corporate world, and were both battle-hardened and clearer-visioned. My friend’s theory was that every executive, by the time he is 30, has to decide whether he is going to try to be top dog or not. That decision, according to him, was not even always a conscious thought- through one. It could be a realization that seeps into your mind over time, or may come in a sudden flash in the middle of the night. The sooner one makes that decision, my friend told me, the better it is for you and all concerned. Being CEO, he said, was a life choice and you have to realign your entire life to that, at work and outside.
Over the years, I’ve thought many times about what my friend said that day. Many from my batch have gone on to occupy the corner office, while many others have deliberately decided to stay in job functions that would not put them in line for the CEO’s post. There was some truth in my friend’s view of the executive life, but it was certainly not the whole truth.
For CEOs quit, too, to move to the beat of their own private drummer. A friend who spent more than two decades in the war zone of advertising, quit just a few months after he made No. 1. He left Mumbai, returned to home town Kolkata and became a visiting faculty at a number of business schools and a consultant. He admits that he earns less than what he used to, but then, Kolkata is also a much more inexpensive city to stay in and he has the time to watch his two lovely daughters grow up. “Management philosopher Charles Handy spoke about what he called ‘portfolio life’,” he told me. “Why do the same thing every day? So on Monday I teach, on Tuesday I do something else, on Wednesday maybe I just take the day off, Thursday I teach…I am living the portfolio life.”
So, too, another ex-CEO friend, who teaches, runs a popular food blog, has invested in a Web solutions company and is dabbling in e-publishing. Of course, his income has reduced, but I have the feeling he really enjoys doing the food blog.
Recently, a young CEO of a small but high-profile company resigned, revealing no other reason than that he “wanted to take time off and do some stuff that I’d always wanted to”. Knowing him, I would not be surprised if he appeared some months from now, leading a rock band, or writing scripts for films.
After a few years of working in corporate India, dogged by a strange boredom and a sense of “is this all there is?” (being young, I didn’t know that for the vast majority of us, yes, that was all there was), I visited a teacher of mine for advice. He heard me out—my vague dissatisfaction, my yearning for a life less ordinary —and said that if I wanted to do something about it, I should do it now. He had many of his students come back to him with the same problem, but by then, they were pushing middle age and it was far too late. So I quit my job in a giant multinational, went to a new city with a severe pay cut and became a journalist (It’s quite another matter that I’ve now also quit journalism and have no clue what to do for the rest of my life).
What has changed in the intervening 22 years is that the Indian corporate executive today does not face the time pressure that we faced when we were young—do it now, or it’ll be too late. Choices have multiplied, and most importantly, salaries are now higher, so a fairly successful manager can accumulate enough money in the bank by the time he is in his 40s to support himself and his lifestyle if he goofs off for a few years. Very few in our parents’ generation ever quit bank jobs that bored the hell out of them and set up white-water-rafting camps—the general uncertainty and the financial risk were formidable.
Today, our possibility sets are much less constricted. And as material wealth has spread to much larger sections of the middle class, the number of people questioning the status quo of their lives has also grown dramatically. A lot more of us have become seekers. And the seeking is not stopping at the corner office.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
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