Last weekend, I had the privilege of visiting a well-known institute of management in western India, to deliver a guest lecture to a class of students learning entrepreneurship. (The lecture was on a Saturday and the students had presumably paid fees for the course. This is going on my resume.)
My mandate was to convey the message that not all MBAs had to become investment bankers, consultants or fund managers. Some of them could also make a good living working as writers or journalists or columnists.
First I tried convincing them by declaring that the trade-offs are totally worth it. Sure, they would make much less money, forfeit expense accounts, give up swanky offices and never be able to buy palatial homes with infinity pools by the time they are 35.
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But in return most journalists don’t have to wear suits, ties or closed footwear to work—“You guys can walk into a newsroom right now in those very same clothes and nobody would say a thing! Except you there in the bright orange shorts with yellow flowers. You should go into advertising.”
Also, I told them, journalists attend fewer meetings, freely access Twitter at work, and only use spreadsheets to calculate House Rent Allowance.
As an added bonus, I said, we sometimes go entire weeks without using phrases such as “touch base”, “boil the ocean” and my personal peeve: “let us revert from our end”.
And then in a passionate closing argument I highlighted virtue: “Where would a country be without free press? How would you know the truth if it were not for us on the frontlines with our pens, notebooks and complete disregard for danger?”
A rare student who was still awake asked me to narrate anecdotes about the risks I had taken in the course of writing Cubiclenamas. Thankfully, at that moment, tea break happened.
The next morning I had individual tete-a-tetes with some of the students—writers, a couple of poets and a whole bunch of aspiring entrepreneurs. Some of them had all kinds of business ideas ranging from publishing to food processing. Many had inspiring life stories that will one day make it to those “Get To Know This CEO Intimately And Fall In Love With Him But Not At All In The Context Of His Forthcoming IPO” type TV shows.
As the meetings went on, I began to realize an interesting pattern. Something came up over and over again: “I have this amazing idea for a start-up. Success guaranteed. It is like betting on an atomic clock. But I am thinking of doing it after working in a company for two or three years.”
Unfortunately, in my experience, this is a difficult life plan. The cubicle is an addictive, convenient pursuit.
Over time one gets used to the trappings of office: the travel desk, salary account, the fellow who files tax returns, the rent payments, the frequent flying, the American Express points, and complementary cappuccinos.
Gradually, we begin to take these luxuries for granted. For instance sometimes, on the weekends, I often find myself whimsically asking the missus to submit her request for purchase of milk “using the form downloadable from the intranet”. She responds in the form of hurled furniture.
My point being, this life is remarkably difficult to walk away from. Especially if what awaits you on the other side is entrepreneurship and associated insanities.
Businesses are tough to set up, tough to run and very few start-ups eventually make money. (I remember reading somewhere that some 80% of all new cafes and restaurants shut within a year.)
So the transition from office to garage can be rather traumatic and uncertain. Which is perhaps why so few people manage that transition. Or indeed even attempt it. Why give up the certainty of Rs10-25 lakh per annum, for the many joys of socializing with boiler inspectors?
Then why do so many people make the same plans of quitting in two/three years to do their own thing?
For many, I guess, this plan is a mental balm that soothes them at work. And keeps them motivated during meetings when nothing but bloodshed with letter opener will do: “One day I will set up a company, hire you and then fire you for excessive stupidity.”
Some are sincere in their plans. But they desperately need the salary. They may have loans to pay and families to support. (And yet some of the brightest entrepreneurs I know come from such backgrounds.)
There is also a certain sex appeal associated with entrepreneurs. When they do well everyone loves to put them on a pedestal. People love people who do their own thing, often oblivious to the fact that the entrepreneur in question makes his own tea and sweeps his own office.
I told the students that they should do whatever they want to. In the end, I guess, all that matters is what you want to do when you wake up in the morning. As a journalist I think about this every day at noon. And then I come to work joyfully. In jeans.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com