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Between a mercenary and a missionary

Legend has it that, once upon a time, Picasso was sitting at a café and whiling his time away. Some versions of the story have it that he was at a bar. Be that as it may, a star-struck fan spotted him and approached him with a request—could he make a quick sketch on a paper napkin?

Picasso acquiesced and in about a minute sketched a dove. The delighted fan could not believe his luck and thanked the artist profusely. Picasso though growled and demanded a huge amount of money. The admirer was stumped, and said the demand was an impossible one. Because it took just a minute to sketch the dove.

The artist wasn’t amused and growled right back: “No, it took me 40 years.”

I was reminded of this story a few days ago when a young man called me up. By way of background, I first met him at a spiritual retreat in the middle of nowhere in South India. He is much younger than I am and we couldn’t be more different from each other.

He grew up in the Hindi heartland, I in Mumbai. He has a degree in computer science from one of India’s premier institutes and an MBA from an Ivy League college in the US. I don’t possess either qualification. Even as his graduation certificate at B-School was being handed over, he was made an offer on campus by an American entity most people would give an arm and a leg to be a part of. By every which yardstick, he was living the dream.

The both of us bonded for various reasons. The most prominent being that we were the only odd ones there used to uttering profanities in an otherwise serene and spiritual environment. We kept wondering how we ended up there in the first place. The other things that kept us occupied were conspiring where to find masala chai and meat in a world where tulsi tea and vegetarian food were the staples.

There was no taking away either from that he is one heck of a smart guy whose earthiness I had come to enjoy. We have stayed in touch since. He got used to calling me bhaiya and I called him chotte bhai.

A few months ago, he called up with a question. An Indian conglomerate of significant repute had made him an offer. They wanted people like him to “come back home” so that they may “build something of global consequence in India by Indians”. He told me he liked the sound of the pitch and that the people who spoke to him sounded equally sincere. He wanted an opinion.

I told him I have my biases and am not an expert on the domain he works in. Instead, I referred him to a few friends and suggested he speak to them in confidence. After hearing him out, they posed an interesting question: “After factoring in for the I-want-to-do-something-for-my-country spiel, if the offer on hand does not match or exceed what you currently earn, would you still take it up?”

He said it wasn’t the money that had caught his attention, but the call to action for a larger purpose. And that the money while on the table surpassed what he currently earned, it was not on his mind because the quality of life in the US where he then resided is higher than what India can possibly offer.

Gut instinct on the part of my friends with gray hair suggested the conglomerate was leading him up the garden path. And that this bloke wouldn’t have considered it had it not been for the money. They punted he would take up the assignment and that the relationship wouldn’t last long. They were damned right on all counts.

Back then, these veterans suggested this was the mind of an inexperienced mercenary at work. With the kind of money on offer, he could buy a lot more than the First World could offer him in terms of a lifestyle. “Patriotism” was his way of justifying the move to the self and those around him.

If he were to continue working in the US, it would take him a few years to earn privileges such as living in a gated community and moving around in the rarefied circles that only the uber-rich could gain entry to in the First World. Overnight, these would suddenly be accessible to him in India. His being an Indian resident would only be incidental.

But conglomerates don’t get to become conglomerates on the back of coincidence. They know exactly what levers to turn to hunt these naïve mercenaries down. He took the offer up and to live up to his part of the deal got an A-team on board and sold them a dream, and all of them got down to work in earnest. After all, they had studied at the best places, had worked at global entities—on average for two or so years—and believed they had earned the right to live the kind of lives they now lived.

But when thought about deeply, had they? Would Picasso have growled for big monies when he was an apprentice? The thought crossed my mind when, much like the veterans predicted, the young man called earlier this week. He told me he was done with the conglomerate because their attitude was “unprofessional”. I heard him out.

To cut a long story short, he asked for a favour. That he be introduced to a doyen from the industry who he was told is looking for a few bright people to start a new line of business. This bloke wanted to pitch to him. Emotion won over reason and in a moment of weakness, I gave in.

Having done that, I thought I’d hear from the young chap on what transpired. There was no word. Curiosity overcame me and I called the veteran to ask what happened. He told me in no uncertain terms the kid won’t go too far because his world view is a myopic one. It is dictated by discourses from the past and the future.

His past resides under the arches of the institutions where he graduated from; as for the future, he is wedded in his head to dreams. And dreams are just that—dreams. They can be broken at any time.

Does he have it in him to snap his fingers and wake up to the moment that he lives in now? Can he see reality and the world for what it is? Until he imbibes the present moment and learn from it, he will neither let go of his past and continue to dream about a fuzzy future that may or may not happen. He had a long way to go before he earns his place in the sun, the doyen told me.

This, he added, is the kind of mercenary he can hire and fire at will from any part of the world. They’ll bite at anything for money and the attendant perks.

I pushed him for some perspective and tried to reflect on what is it my grey-haired friends were punting on. Turns out the answers are simple. But difficult for the mercenaries to comprehend.

This young man is plain stupid. Getting to be top dog in Silicon Valley doesn’t happen on the back of merit alone as the movies or breathless narratives would have us believe. I haven’t met any of these people personally. But on the back of conversations with people who know them first-hand and from documented accounts on how they conduct themselves, there is reason to believe the circumstances they live in and the kind of people they chose to be conspired to take them to where they are.

Let’s deconstruct one thing at a time.

The circumstances

How entities operate in Silicon Valley is very different from how a conglomerate works in any other part of the world. To put that into perspective, those who graduate from the best institutions are weaned into a workforce early on with fancy salaries and perks that make sense in Silicon Valley. This is done with a reason.

It is more economical to have an employee working and living on campus than some distance away. This is a practice that has been chiselled and honed over the years at entities such as Google. The outcomes are measured down to minutiae like what impact it has on creativity and productivity.

Turns out, at the end of the day, all of what is portrayed as fun places to work at in popular reports is designed such that an individual’s personal and professional lives merge. It takes an enormous amount of mental muscle on the individual’s part to see through this.

Oftentimes though, this is overlooked and it is seen as a culture that ought to be celebrated. That is why many countries, India included, have attempted to clone it. But cultures cannot be cloned. They evolve over time and at a certain place. It cannot happen outside of that place.

Consider China for instance. It tried to clone Silicon Valley. But there is only so much you can clone. After that you must innovate. For that matter, the culture that exists in Silicon Valley cannot exist in any other place than the geography that it is confined to a small corner of the US.

Why? Because circumstances conspired to create a culture in that part of a large country where failure is not frowned upon. Instead, failure is looked upon as an opportunity to learn and—in the lingo of the Valley—the time to “pivot” or change track.

This option does not exist anyplace else—not even in New York, the financial capital of the world, which provides a pipeline of funds that keeps Silicon Valley oiled. New York does not tolerate failure. The beast is a complex one and the nuances of it are lost.

The people

Then there are the people who populate this world and the leaders who lead them. There are two kinds of leaders—the missionaries and the mercenaries. While both can win wars, the worlds they live in are different ones.

Missionaries cannot be hired. Mercenaries can be. This is put into perspective on the back of a brilliant talk by Simon Sinek on “Why Leaders Eat Last”, where Sinek drives home a powerful point.

“Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the senior-most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.”

I have not had the privilege of interacting with them first-hand, but I have engaged in conversations with people who have known them personally. It leads me to believe that in the history of contemporary business, Jeff Bezos, who leads Amazon, Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft, and the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple fit the mould of a missionary leader. By all accounts they are maniacs as well. But there is a purpose that drives them and it goes beyond money. What drives them is the audacity to imagine they can change the world.

More pertinently, missionaries are acutely aware there are mercenaries out there who are as good as they are. The thin line that separates them though, is that missionaries cannot be hired—mercenaries can be baited with monetary perks and the lure of gold. Like my young friend.

The only view mercenaries like him have of is that entities in places like Silicon Valley operate in a certain way. This is because they have been weaned on stories of entrepreneurs who’ve earned their billions while still in their twenties even as they started building their products when in college. The young ones think therefore it is an immutable truth that all can be had at once.

What they are unwilling to acknowledge or understand is that every part of the world has its own nuances, demons and beasts to deal with. These need to be understood—and not looked at from the prism that is Hollywood.

These blokes don’t get it though. Like the grey-haired folks with much wisdom have told me across multiple conversations over the years, an ecosystem exists between New York and Silicon Valley that conspires to groom the young ones who grow up in the West to build systems tailored for their worlds.

When shifted from the cocoon that is a premier campus in India to another one in the West, the young ones from markets like India imagine they have arrived. And when presented with an offer on the first day they graduate from B-School, they go over the moon.

But nothing can be further than the truth. They have neither arrived nor earned their place yet. These are dumb mercenaries who will go anyplace for a few dollars more. They are rooted in a past as seen on the screen and imagine a future that is yet to unfold. The present is something they tune out. It is inevitable then that they be condemned to a life of unhappiness.

Picasso could sit there, sip his drink, watch the world go by and sketch the way he could because he had spent an enormous amount of time practising his craft in the past.

He had moved on since then. He lived in the moment, was acutely aware of the grind he had gone through to get there and had no pretensions of what the future may hold. He had earned his right to demand the kind of money he did. My young friend hadn’t.

Charles Assisi is co-founder atFounding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is@c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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