I write this with an urge to get away with a little self-indulgence. A lot in life is about farewells and leave-taking – moving from school to college, from college to professional life, from employment to employment, from love to love, from country to country, and from life phase to life phase.
2014 marked another major leave-taking for me. When I left Citi early last year, it was not easy doing so. Not because of the security and trappings of corporate success but because I liked the organization and loved working for it. Citi, indeed, is as good an institution as any multinational. For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. The choice and successful pursuit of a profession can be an effective tool for achieving your purpose. The decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent become easier on you. I want my life to be assessed not by dollars but the individual people whose lives have come into contact with mine. Hence, the part of my job I relished the most over the years was the opportunity it brought to connect with and to build and develop people and teams. Management is a very noble profession if it is practised well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, practise values of responsibility and fairness, and contribute to the success of a team. However, the twinge of separation was far surpassed by the excitement of charting out a new course on my own. Yes, I was anxious. For the first time in my working life I had no company to associate with my name. I was moving to a new place and was somewhat weary of meeting new people without being able to announce what I did. As happens when your name was once a constant on many people’s phone screens but now it is rare, the void has to be dealt with. However, excitement is the key word to define what I felt. Excitement of no more living life through a great brand in the corporate world where organizations incessantly put pressure on their people to achieve and people are valued for little else but for their utility in fulfilling their organizations’ dream. Ironically, in a society which defines itself through work, we can spend our lives building a professional identity only to end up yearning to divest ourselves of its trappings.
Citi stands out as an institution in that it is a great school – a fabulous training ground for bankers, especially in the emerging markets. It is a highly structured organization and yet moves with great alacrity for a behemoth of its size and range. Its geographical reach and diversity mean that you can often switch jobs with a change in career dimension without having to leave the company. The general quality of people is remarkably good for an unsexy giant and you get to work with a lot of clever people. By dint of its vast range of activities and operations the company provides lots of opportunities to acquire diplomacy and political skills. However, the organization has lost quite a bit of its character and some of its lustre in the midst of the series of problems it has had to face over the last fifteen years. It has become over compartmentalized with a labyrinth of matrices and bureaucracy. Citi of today loses a lot more of its time and energy in internal manoeuvring and friction as compared to Citi of twenty years ago. The organization has surely receded from its baseline in optimizing the deployment of the sum of its energy. Its reward system has drifted away from merit and the annual performance reviews have constantly deteriorated despite becoming more cumbersome and complex. The upheavals in the past years have also unleashed a continuing saga of shifting strategies and whims as the organization tries to recreate itself after every major setback.
As Frederick Herzberg asserts, the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. Good corporations strive to ensure that their career offerings are designed to fulfil all of these four aspects. For people with a high need of achievement their careers provide the most concrete evidence that they are moving forward. The best years in corporate life are the early years when the opportunities for learning and personal and career growth are abundant. However, instead of life getting continuously more exciting as we grow in a career, opening up greater freedom and a lot more options, the life gets narrower at one stage or the other for most people as they advance. It is not uncommon to see people living out the last ten to fifteen years of their careers for a cosy retirement as if those years did not represent precious life to be lived to its fullest. Perhaps we get addicted to constancy and security of monthly and yearly cash flows into our pockets. It is this addiction that is the most difficult to surmount when making difficult choices. In the hindsight I realize that the corporate career should be engineered only around two choices: step up or step off. To sit tight and hope is, more often than not, not worth the years of our life we trade in the process.
Working for a big corporation has many charms: it entails learning and personal growth, it brings status and respect, it enhances social acceptability to make networking easier, it is filled with adrenalin pumping moments in a competitive environment, and it affords opportunities to build a wealth of life-time relationships with colleagues and peers. It teaches you to do networking as in corporate world invisibility is a crime far worse than failure. You should always be reaching out to others. I miss all that. But I do not miss the dose of regimentation that comes with all that. Too many people are unduly afraid of not knowing the right answers or questioning because they know that questioning their superiors is not the way they will get to the top of the ladder. Looking good and not making mistakes is the way to go. The corporations are crammed with people who know how to run on the treadmill with the least amount of energy.
When you are on your own after spending over two decades in a structured and supportive work environment you realize that it is not so much what you know that counts –not the least because what you know has become dated- it is how fast you learn. That skill is priceless in the real world outside a cocoon, priceless in reacting as well as finding faster and better access to opportunities. It is about continually retooling and reinvesting yourself. Interestingly, faced with a lack of structure I was used to and disoriented by the lack of some imposed purpose, initially I would feel guilty that I was not working hard enough. After 20 years of institutionalized office life of five days a week, 47 weeks a year, and checking blackberry round the clock, not to have to get up and go to the office takes some getting used to. But then you start enjoying the Freedom it entails: freedom to choose whom you give your time, freedom to make your own decisions, and freedom to lend your days and weeks structure as you want.
What happens in life only just happens; then inevitability is bestowed upon it. In the long run memory builds a refuge in which what happened and what almost did become blurred. To me the difference between the lived and the not-so-lived lives lies in the little word “if.” “If” constitutes an invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the imaginary, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life. “If” is ever so harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have. It is not as simple to change as it is made out to be. Realistically speaking, one needs countless lives to outlive the tyranny of “if.” Still I would want my kids to live in a manner that leaves as few “ifs” as possible for the later years of life, which are about savouring those drops of life that we swallowed in huge swigs when we were young. Luckily for me the life is still a lot more about ‘what now’ than ‘if’.
Leaving my job has also helped me learn the value of money for the first time in my life. A valuable learning that came quite late to me, but better late than never as the cliché goes. When you have a comfortable student life and then walk into a cosy job even before you get your final result, it can lead you into a totally false sense of security years after years. As long as money was easy and plentiful, I never thought much about it, I misused and wasted it. But when I found myself without money, I started to value it. I learned how it feels to have no cash inflow. I am glad to have learnt this lesson to be able to commit to and to educate my kids to building wealth rather than chasing the buck and spending the dough.
The bottom line is that this move I made brought a great deal of digging deep inside for me. When I left, I decided to devote next one year to myself and my family. A year of the Holy Grail, when who you are is what makes you happy as opposed to the tasks that you do. To my surprise, those twelve months have ebbed away too fast. There is a lot of joy and freedom in discovering your truths, when you are on the brink of living differently. I have uncovered my love of exploring, writing, reading, and speaking. It has helped me learn, develop, and, above all, to find out who I were in addition to me who had spent past twenty years in an office-bound life. The truth is that such transition time is a project full of self-discovery, of discovering how you want to live. We all deserve at least a year of our lives solely for ourselves and the ones we love the most. To accept life’s challenge to learn, to survive, to adapt, to change –while doing it on your own terms- is not necessarily stepping off, it may as well be stepping up. I now feel infused with enthusiasm and hope for my next undertaking in life.