Ashish is 40 and a talented apparel designer. He has many interests, including cars, good food and music. He enjoys his job but, like many 40-year-old professionals, is feeling restless. Should he be more ambitious and aspire to a senior management role? Or should he pursue his dream of opening a restaurant? Why not simply take a year off and travel around the world? But how would he keep up payments on his SUV?
Helen, 45, is a mid-level employee in a large American company. She hates the stifling bureaucracy, the long hours, the politics, stress, her uninspiring boss. Helen would like to leave but doesn't know what else to do. She fears all others are jobs just like this. She has monthly payments to make and needs the salary. But she wants to have more time for her kids and for her own hobbies. Helen knows she should be grateful to have a stable and reasonably well-paying job. However, given half a chance, she would love do something else. But what?
Ram is 49 and a US-educated software engineer in Bangalore with experience working for companies like IBM. But he joined an entrepreneurial start-up that blew up. Now it has been nearly a year and he still hasn't found a job. Companies prefer younger, hungrier people even though they are very short of experienced middle managers. Ram is torn. He wonders if he should join another start-up, settle for smaller job in a big company, or even an NGO. Perhaps go back to school? But with his savings drying up, he worries about being able to provide for his family and about sending his children to college.
At 57, Catherine has had a good career but is worried about her approaching retirement. Catherine is still vibrant and active and thinks she has at least another decade before she retires. She doesn't want to become like her friend, Steve, who is 65 and retired five years ago after a successful career as an executive. Living life intensely till the end, Steve failed to anticipate the changes that would come after retirement.
At one point, he was working 70 hours a week, solving problems and enjoying the adulation of people. Then there were no calls, no email, no visitors. Having given no thought to what he wanted to do next, having no responsibilities, no significant hobbies and having lost the capacity to have fun, Steve fell into a deep depression and is a shadow of his charismatic self. A pity really because he is an extraordinary mentor and developer of talent and so many people would have given anything to be coached by Steve.
These archetypal stories indicate an increasingly common predicament around the world. Lots of talented people don't have jobs, or are underemployed. Many more are very frustrated in their jobs but stuck due to their fears and confusion, 'living lives of quiet desperation', as Thoreau said. More and more people are living longer and are productive into their 70s but employers prefer younger, hungrier employees who cost less.
Retiring early, even if it is financially feasible, results in boredom, frustration, depression and rapid aging. This is truly an equal-opportunity problem that is relevant not just to CEOs and successful people but every middle-aged, educated professional in every country. Some people, unfortunately, are truly limited in their options-financial compulsions, lack of relevant skills or turbulence on the personal front may require them to find or simply hold down as steady a job as possible no matter how meaningless it may feel for the moment.
However, for many professionals, it is indeed possible to develop a much more fulfilling professional and personal life. For this, they must be willing to take risks and shift from thinking about finding (or staying in) a traditional, full-time job to building a new 'portfolio life' where they are productive, happy and self-reliant. The key is to drive this shift proactively before being forced to do so by adverse circumstances. How do I speak with such conviction?
From personal experience. Two years back, I turned 48 and decided to walk away from a coveted job as the chairman of Microsoft India to reinvent myself and my life. Heading Microsoft in a dynamic market like India was about as terrific a job as any ambitious leader would ever want. It offered intellectual stimulation, compensation, respect, access to networks and a lot of satisfaction. But by 2010, the intensity of the job was getting to me; I was weary, restless and no longer thrilled by the challenges of my work. I had achieved my goal of building Microsoft India to a $1 billion business and making it amongst the most respected companies in India.
My work no longer felt like a mission - it felt like a job. Steve Jobs' advice resonated deeply: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. I had answered 'No' for too many days; I knew I had to reinvent myself once again as I had done every decade or so. But deciding I needed to do something different, was easy; deciding what to do was much harder.
As I agonised over my choices, the reason why people stay trapped in jobs they no longer enjoy or why CEOs and others in positions of power cling on so desperately to their roles long after their expiry date, became very clear. The answer is simple. Confusion and fear.
Confusion because very few people are so lucky as to know exactly what they want to do; most of us have only vague notions, half-baked ideas and fantasies about what we want to do with our lives. And fear because leaving a familiar situation, even if it is not pleasant, has risks.
The combination of confusion and fear drains us of the conviction that is necessary to overcome fears and boldly strike out in a new direction. Fears hold us back while passion and conviction propels us forward. So unless one's passion for an idea is able to overcome whatever fears we have, the result is paralysis and inaction.
The task, therefore, is to develop clarity of direction and confront the fears that hold us back. It was no different with me. I had so many ideas that interested me. An entrepreneurial venture. Join the government. Private equity. Director of a business school. Why not simply take a year off and travel around India and the world? But while they all felt interesting or plausible, I didn't have real conviction around any of them.
All kinds of fears also bubbled up. Who am I if I am not the CEO of a big company? Will people still care or simply melt away? Will I become bored quickly? Have I saved enough money to not care about earning money? What if I want to get back to a job-will the door still be open or is this a one-way street? Am I 'retiring' too early?