The road less travelled

The road less travelled
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First Published: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 33 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 33 AM IST
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?” is a reasonably clichéd question for a campus job interview. I have now done 300-plus interviews across business and undergraduate school campuses and also worked or interacted with an equally large set of brilliant graduates.
Five years ago, the typical place most non-medicine graduates and business school postgraduates saw themselves a decade later was “in the top management of a leading a decision-making role…shaping the direction of the organization”.
The answer today is different for some people. “I want to be an entrepreneur and create employment.” “I want to be running an NGO.” “I want to give back something to the society”, “I want to be in politics and make a change.” Some of these answers seem probably even more clichéd than the question—a bit beauty pageant-like maybe—but the emotion and the passion behind them is evident.
In these times of strong economic growth and unparalleled career opportunities, does this seem surprising? The first few times, the first few years in fact, I was really surprised. But I now realize that this is but just a natural outcome of development and opportunity. Eight or 10 years ago, when today’s 30-somethings finished their education, our middle-class upbringing still weighed heavily upon us. Seeing our parents go through their entire lives in an endless cycle of planning, earning and saving constantly for the next expense/purchase, the lure of a big flat in Mumbai or Delhi, a nice car at the age of 28 and foreign vacations was very strong. The aspiration was to become rich and powerful quickly and what job led you there was not that consequential. We thought that a lot of our classmates would still end up living a largely mediocre life. Hence, we worked and worked to enter the privileged category of people.
What is different today is that this money and this glory is not as much of an aspiration. Being given the opportunity to lead a company to excellence is not that tough for good people graduating out of a top 10 business school, an IIT or any top graduate school. And the thing about aspiration is that what is easily attainable at times is not worth fighting for.
So, the question becomes: What is worth fighting for? What is it that is worth sacrificing your nights’ sleep and your mind’s peace?
More and more people are finally asking themselves this question—and finally finding their own unique answer. That answer is often linked to one of two things: Living life fulfilling one’s passion or effecting fundamental change in this country. Those truly sound like aspirations that are neither trivial nor easy to achieve.
Here are some examples: A girl I recently interviewed at an undergraduate campus decided to skip her interviews for an international job in order to have the experience of assisting her mother in a large-scale, multicultural choreography show. There is no remorse at missing the employment opportunity, only pure joy at the immense experience and learning from the path she chose. Three young men from a top consulting firm left the security of their jobs to start a new venture of their own. An engineer from a top 10 school decided to give up a foreign IT job and trade it in for a life of making documentaries, indulging in financially remunerative activities only when his bank balance is lower than next month’s house rent. These are people living their passions, gaining precious life experience, building such memories that they never look back and say, “If only I had...” These people rarely measure their own success relative to others and their happiness and fulfilment is rarely based on what they own materially. This is the set of people who are going to be the artists, the sportspersons, the cultural leaders and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. These are the ones who will shape the India of tomorrow.
Here is another set of examples: A young colleague decided to defer his transfer to the US by six months, jeopardizing his chances of getting a sponsorship to a US business school in order to work with a development agency for a rural development project, spending his time in an Orissa district. Another ex-colleague decided to give up a conventional post-MBA career to get a degree in education and work towards transforming India’s primary education.
The net result is that India finally has a significantly sized pool of extremely sharp, driven people who are willing to experiment, who are willing to do a different set of things from conventional careers. These are the people who may be an important component in driving India’s multifaceted and potentially holistic and equitable growth.
Some of these people will find their way to fulfil their aspirations. Others may get disillusioned and revert to the road well trodden. However, we also probably have a role to play here. It is incumbent upon the rest of us, as parents, advisers, as seniors in corporations, in the government and in politics, to find ways to nurture these new aspirations, rather than letting them die.
All we need to do is a simple set of things. As parents and advisers, encourage them to take the path less trodden, to experiment with their careers, to explore and live their dreams rather than make money, fame and stability the only criteria for success. Also, inculcate values that go beyond the self and strongly include societal development and inclusion. As corporate organizations, value people who bring in a diversity of experiences, who don’t necessarily know their path 10 years out, but are full of energy and enthusiasm today. Give them challenging, exciting, potentially the most difficult, path-breaking and innovative work, and not make them the bottom of the team pyramid—the note taker, the data cruncher. As government and politicians, find ways to channelize their energy and their desire to contribute to the country meaningfully and with real on-the-ground impact.
This cannot be that much of an effort. After all, their aspirations only help in meeting all our joint aspirations for a new India.
Seema Bansal is a principal with Boston Consulting Group. Comment at ­
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First Published: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 33 AM IST