A strange peer pressure has gripped India’s corporate executives

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock


Executives who quit dull jobs for their own ventures may change the world in ways that few expect

He is yet another jovial man in Gurugram, a successful corporate climber doing something important in a large corporation for which he probably earns over 1 crore a year. But, of late, an idea has taken possession of him. He has never been possessed by an idea before. It was the sort of thing that used to happen to arts students. Now he is in the unhappy restlessness of a tremendous thought. It is an idea for his own ‘startup’ that will ‘disrupt’ something. He hates his job, despises it completely, and wishes to be liberated it from it. The only thing that makes him happy these days are thoughts of his own startup. His wife keeps a close watch over him when he talks of his idea with friends, and she passes calm rational remarks that point to its obvious flaws and inevitable doom. She has been trying to kill it, and she will not rest until she eliminates the idea from his head. The man wants to quit his lucrative job and final few years of corporate relevance for a tired idea that will likely fail.

Gurugram is packed with successful corporate men and women in their 40s who dream of liberation through their own startups, and dependents who hope to quietly sabotage those radical notions. The town is also full of those who have liberated themselves. Once, on Monday mornings, they used to go to an office; now, they are in small cafes talking about their ideas.

Across Indian cities, a new peer pressure has come to exert itself on middle-aged managers. If they are not working on their own startups, they feel they are rotting away in the lap of a secure dull job. If they are running their own startups, most of them have even more convincing reasons to feel a sense of failure; just that it feels more like a foreboding than restlessness.

They have developed some physical symptoms that once afflicted young writers alone in the throes of their next big novel, or film. In the trance of their ideas, they pace their rooms, walk down streets in meditative awe, write concept notes, and fall under the motivational influence of their professions’ gurus. They, of course, do a few things differently from young hungry artists. They listen for hours to podcasts from the United States on how to create a successful business. And they must surely have heard, at least once, that famous convocation lecture of Steve Jobs in which he said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life."

Since childhood, at every stage of their lives, they were told how to live, and they followed. They were given a clear idea of a final frontier, an objective that, if achieved, would ‘settle’ them forever. But what they have discovered of life is that after a famous objective-type entrance exam, there is one more objective-type entrance exam; then another frontier, and then one more.

Life is an onion made up of final frontiers. And now the final frontier is their very own venture. All their lives, they were driven by the fear of their peers doing better than them. This fear made them conform to every tenet of society. They did everything their elders told them they should do, and they stayed away from what they were told to steer clear of. But that fear just never ends; no matter what, the chase goes on. I am reminded of a poem by the Tamil politician Kanimozhi:

‘Following my father’s advice,

I joined the school, combed my hair,

Avoided some friends, clothed myself well,

Cleaned my teeth, prayed, married

And am now waiting for my turn.’

After a lifetime of training to conform, be dependable, consider ‘disruption’ a bad word, never be rebels, and even punish rebels, they now have to strike out on their own on the strength of an idea. How cruel.

Those who are consumed by ideas, after the trance of the initial months, begin to fear that their ideas are not remarkable enough, or perhaps merely plagiarisms. There are many who do not have ideas. They only know they need a startup, like writers who only know they have to write the next big thing, though they don’t know what exactly they must write. Where do ideas come from, they wonder. What must they do to ‘get’ an idea. Is yet another way of delivering food to people an ‘idea’ ?

Among those afflicted with the fever of entrepreneurship are those who have become venture capitalists. They will invest in chosen fevers, and hope one becomes a hit. So many of the afflicted now approach them to casually deliver a concept, that they have developed a suspicion of anyone who says he has a great idea. Their faces remind me of publishers who try to flee a person who wants to pitch a book.

Until recently, the corporate class did not have a foreboding of failure. They were optimistic, arrogant and the least melancholic. But now, in the age of ideas, many of them have begun to feel the frustration of defeat. It could be the daily humiliation of having to answer to bosses, and among the liberated, it is the prolonged absence of a breakthrough. A persistent sense of failure was and is the majority condition of artists and intellectuals who have an outsized influence on the world; it’s probably why they portray the world in gloomy ways and veer towards organized compassion. But what are the consequences of capitalists, too, feeling like underdogs? They will turn more compassionate, I guess, towards failure and sorrow, and join artists in portraying the winners of our times as the arch-villains. Much modern righteousness in the world, after all, emerges from millionaires despising billionaires. As a result, the golden age of lament will enter its platinum era.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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