I recently spoke to an audience of young people in Jaipur. This piece is adapted from that talk. In order to set appropriate life goals, it is useful to go through an existential crisis early on in life. By existential crisis, I mean a dilemma inside your head where you are trying to answer a few crucial questions: Why am I here? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?
I went through such a crisis more than once when I was younger. In school, I did what was expected of all good students—I studied hard and qualified for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs. I was delighted. However, when I went for the medical examination, it was discovered that I was partially colour blind. This would go down in my medical records and certain areas of work and specialization would be out of bounds for me. While it probably wasn’t going to be a serious impediment to my career, what it did make me do was stop and think.
Confronted with a decision about whether I should take the IIT admission or do something else, I asked myself questions that I thus far had never asked—why did I want to join IIT? Was I really passionate about engineering? I wanted to become an entrepreneur eventually, but were there other routes? Did I study hard for the IIT entrance exam because that was what I wanted to do or was I following the herd? Not surprisingly, I concluded that I wasn’t passionate about the course. I was merely doing what others expected of me. I was taking the safe option. I did not want to study engineering. I just wanted to be an IITian. I was keen on joining a prestigious club.
The truth also was that I did not know what I really wanted to study.
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After much thought, I decided not to join IIT and instead went on to study economics at St Stephen’s College. Not that I had discovered a great passion for economics, but I decided that it was better to do a course you were not passionate about for only three years at St Stephen’s rather than for five years at IIT.
St Stephen’s was a lot of fun. I made lifelong friends, I developed a deeper interest in economics than I had anticipated when I joined, I drifted, and I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next. All in all, it had been a smart decision.
My second such crisis happened when I graduated from St Stephen’s. Once again, I was faced with a dilemma—I had got admission into Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, or IIM-C, and I had got a job at Lintas—a leading advertising agency. I was torn between joining IIM, which was clearly the safer option, or working for a few years and then applying to the IIMs once again which, if I did manage to get admission later, was the better option.
I knew I would learn more from an MBA programme if I had already got a few years of work experience under my belt. I also knew that I might not get in the next time. Maybe I had got lucky the first time—I didn’t know. Was I really good enough?—I didn’t know. What would I do if I was unable to qualify the next time?—I didn’t know. Once again, I thought about it long and hard and decided to take the risk and work for a few years before doing an MBA. In the end, it worked out well.
The third time that I went through such a dilemma was a few years later, during my first job after IIM. I was in two minds about whether I should quit and become a full-time entrepreneur or whether I should continue in a corporate career as a professional manager. I found the long-term goal of becoming an entrepreneur as compelling as ever.
However, when it came to actually quitting and giving up the security of a monthly salary cheque, I was afraid. It took me six months of introspection to finally conclude that this was what I wanted to do. I decided that while the easy option would be to continue in my job and have a good life, what I really wanted to do was to be independent and to found a company that would do innovative work and be recognized for something.
So there were three crucial junctures where I was forced to think long and hard and where a different choice would have altered the course of my life.
The point I want to make is that it is good if you are confronted early in life with situations which force an existential crisis upon you, where you need to do some serious soul-searching to answer some basic questions.
The sooner you answer these questions, the faster you will be able to get down to chasing your life’s real purpose. Those who leave it till too late to examine these questions usually go through some sort of mid-life crisis when they discover they were chasing the wrong dream all along and it is too late to do anything about it.
Existential crises help you arrive at the life goals that are right for you.
The author is co-founder and chief executive officer, Info Edge (India) Ltd, which runs the Web portal Naukri.com. He writes a monthly column on careers and enterprise.
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