Last week I was invited for an Inspiration Session at the JWT office. The invite came to me from my friend, the talented Babita who heads a division in their Gurgaon office. It was a nice, informal, fun thing with tea and Dhokla involved, and I really enjoyed speaking to the folks there.
The day I was scheduled to go over for the talk, I thought it would be best to put down some speech notes - I dashed this off, and of course, didn't end up actually using them while speaking, but it did help to pen down my thoughts. Here's the draft that I wrote, completely different from the condensed, more interactive version of what finally occurred. The reason I thought I'd like to capture it here is that it's a phase in my life when I'm transitioning back to the corporate world, this time as an employee and not as a consultant - after a few years of doing the sabbatical-writing-consultant mix. Here goes -while it's long, I'm hopeful you'll get something out of it too :) - I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I’m happy to see you all here, and I’m also happy about this initiative –on a Friday afternoon, an ‘inspiration session’ – a time to actually take a pause from all the activities that keep us busy, time to take stock of where we’re actually headed with all that we're doing.
I plan to speak to you only about 15-20 minutes so that we have another 15-20 minutes afterwards for an interaction where I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have, provided I know the answers. I’ve been struggling with what I’d like to say to you, given that it’s been some learnings over the last five years really that I think have resulted in some profound changes in my life.
So I’ll start with the year 2010, five years ago – when I was having my twin sons. I was 85 kilos with the weight of the two boys, tremendously uncomfortable and vowing that I’d never have kids again. And that was even before the difficult surgery – two surgeries, the latter that resulted from a complication with the first C-section. It was the most difficult time I’ve ever had to go through with physical pain and weakness and the clear sense of almost having lost my life.
Today, I feel so thankful that I went through that. A lot of people say stuff like this – if I hadn’t been through that really difficult time, I wouldn’t be who I am now. And it’s true. I actually think it’s a pity that more people don’t go through difficult, near-death-experiences because often, it’s the only way that you get whacked enough on the head to see your life for what it is.
For about 8 years before this time, I’d been on the journey of a typical corporate go-getter. Very competitive, passed out of IIM-Bangalore, several years at Levers, aspiring to be one of the youngest AVPs in my current organisation….it was the sickness that caused me to reevaluate what was really important to me. And so, I started writing.
It was as if a veil had been lifted. Something that I’d been hiding inside of myself, busy with the corporate world, a deep passion and a desire to get my work in print had now been activated and I was able to create the first draft of what would become my first published novel in about three months while I was recovering.
So my first big message to you would be – don’t wait for life to whack you on the head and get you started on what you really believe will make you happy. Just whack yourself on the head and do it. It starts with a pause, like this one. We don’t pause enough.
Sometime after I’d recovered and got my book deal from HarperCollins, I took a call that I wouldn’t ever have taken earlier. It was kind of a big pause. I decided to to for a Sabbatical, for the first time since I’d started working. I had become AVP. But now, it was just a job title and I wasn’t attached to it anymore. My grandma got really sick and I wanted to spend time with her. My writing career was about to start, my children were still small. It was all getting too much. With the help of a supportive husband, I took this call and I moved out of the corporate world for some time.
My sabbatical was important to me. It lasted a couple of years, and I had a few consulting assignments in between but I had plenty of time with my kids. I didn’t travel much, I spent a lot of time working on my health, writing, music, becoming a Zumba instructor, hanging out more with my kids. I wrote two more books, actually three or four if you count the ones that are yet to be published. I read heaps, a lot of work on non-fiction, on creativity, on writing, on managing life, on parenting and yes, many on happiness and finding your passion. It’s almost embarrassing for me now how much I’ve read on different theories and practices for happiness. It’s particularly embarrassing because I have to admit that I’m such a work-in-progress even at the age of 35. But then - I actually believe I’m so much better off at 35 than I was at 30, and I’m really looking forward to being 40, and then older…so I’m guessing I might be doing something right.
A Caveat here: Do I recommend taking a sabbatical to work on something really important to you? Absolutely. Does that mean you all need to go out and ask for one right away? Absolutely not. I was very lucky to be in a unique situation where I didn’t have the financial pressure of being the primary breadwinner. I was also at a stage where I really wanted to look at establishing myself as an author and that needed focussed time and effort; I had the financial AND emotional support of my husband, but very importantly –I think I had the backing of several years of good work in the corporate space, which would ensure that I wouldn’t get left too far behind if I wanted to ever come back. Which I found, as the kids grew up – I did. I do. I’m going back to work next month, in the full-time employ of an organisation that luckily for me, works very well virtually and doesn’t have any problem with people working from home too. Contrary to what you might have thought I’d say, I actually don’t recommend whole-heartedly jumping into following your passion – I do recommend taking the time to figure things out for yourself; and reading an excellent book by Cal Newport called ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You love’
It’s an important time for me right now as I transition back to holding a position and a title at an organization again. I thought I’d take stock of some of the things I’ve discovered for myself over the last few years. In the hope that at least one or two of these, if not more, help you in some way or the other –
1) MANAGING ENERGY – everything that you do from the moment you get up in the morning to the time you go to sleep, requires energy. People often ask me – how is it that you’re doing so many things –managing work, writing books, your children, studying yoga, taking zumba classes, learning music.
a. I do those things only to the point that they energize me. Yoga and Zumba don’t happen on the same days for me. They’re my own workout, helping both body and mind. I write in fits and spurts for a couple of months at a time, and that too, for no more than a couple of hours each day, or it begins to get me down. The music I’m learning? I play for maybe fifteen minutes a day, if that, and if it begins to feel I’m going nowhere with it, I’ll stop.
b. Appropriate Goal-setting -It helps to set longer term goals so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. I was feeling overwhelmed by taking piano and guitar classes at the same time. It all started because I used to sit in on my daughter’s piano lessons like any good, obsessive mother would – and it was suggested to me that I should stop doing that and let her learn on her own for more independent progress. I figured, well, I’m taking her anyway, and I should use my time better. But it was only when I set myself a twenty year retirement goal with Piano that it became better – I figured ,if I play even a little for the next twenty years, I’ll be pretty good with the piano when I’m 55 and close to retirement age. So that sounds like a very decent plan to me. And with the guitar, it was almost the opposite. I’ve chosen to have no goals here but to enjoy the process. Some things are good just for the fun of it.
e. Energy through creating vs consuming - Doesn’t watching TV fall into the same category? A few episodes of Mad Men, some social media addiction, Tweeting away what you’re having for lunch…. Research has shown that more active means of occupying you time result in more happiness than these short term consumption-heavy fixes – exercise, time with the family, working on a creative project, things that get you actively into the state known as flow – which is when you’re in the zone of doing something that you’re capable of doing but can get better at with more practice, something that’s creating vis a vis just consuming – those will trump things like shopping binges or social media or TV binges any time.
2) MANAGING TIME
a.Creating Your Own Time: I find that I have to be very disciplined when I’m working from home because time available is only that much. My staff at home, of whom there are plenty, have learned to respect this over time. They used to keep interrupting me with stuff that drove me crazy ‘Didi? Aaj kya sabzi banegi’ and I’d be like ‘whatever! Who cares! Just make whatever and leave me alone’ And they wouldn’t. But over time, they learned that they must, and now I have the time and the space to work on my creative projects at home. It takes being adamant sometimes with your family but even my kids finally respect my writing time at home.
b. These days, I also find doing stuff in short bursts of 10 or 20 minutes are helpful and get stuff done. 10 minutes of an Ab workout or 10 minutes of scrolling through inane updates? In today’s age of distractions, I think it’s actually quite important to manage even short bursts of time well to get things done. It’s also helpful to tell yourself ‘Okay, let me do 20 minutes of yoga or whatever’ – and often you’ll find you exceed that time and feel good afterwards.
c. I also find that while multi-tasking is actually quite unproductive sometimes, killing two birds with one stone is often a good idea. My music lessons are a time for me to also bond with my daughter, alone time with her in the car. My walk with the husband gets both of us moving in the nights after the kids are sleeping. Even when I’m singing the kids a lullaby, I try to improve my vocals and sometimes surprise them with the dark songs I sing to them. I think it’s more a dual purpose to the things I choose to do rather than doing two things at the same time.
3) MANAGING SPACE:
I think things really changed for me when I got myself a desk. Our house is full to the brim of stuff and people, we have a lot of kids and a lot of help. Having my own corner in the house with my laptop, and my books and music system, a little space where I can do Yoga, has been tremendously important for me to move forward with things that matter to me.
Managing your space is important for another reason – to overcome resistance. I moved my guitar back into my room from the balcony where I used to house it so that I’d see it and remember to play it on a more regular basis. My yoga mat and even my running shoes are within my room in plain sight on an ongoing basis.
You need to put away the temptations and bring out the things that will make you happy after you’ve done them ( vis a vis a chocolate bar that feels great while you’re eating it but immediately after, doesn’t feel so good). In fact, this is a great distinction for me –I remind myself about whether I’m going to feel good after I’ve done something and then try to be more conscious about the things I choose to do, or eat, or the way I behave in a day.
Note: in another post, I've updated the tremendous life-changing magic of Tidying Up!
Note: in another post, I've updated the tremendous life-changing magic of Tidying Up!
4) MANAGING YOUR MIND:
a. RESISTANCE: Even just sitting down to write on a daily basis is difficult. You’ll be suddenly plagued by how messy your room is or the children’s cupboard is and there will be mails to answer and bills to pay. Your mind has this amazing ability to create something called Resistance, a very powerful force that Steven Pressfield writes about in his books called ‘The War of Art’ and ‘Do the Work’ – in a nutshell, resistance is what wants to prevent you from doing what you really want to do – and it is possibly the single biggest blocker to getting started and keeping on with and to finishing your best work. What a pity if you were to let that force win though. The best way to vanquish it is to know how it works, and be able to predict it and deal with it. I handle procrastination not by fighting it, but by allowing it for short defined bursts of time. I say I’m going to allow myself five minutes of time to waste on Facebook, I’ll then do half an hour or an hour of writing the next chapter of my book. And then I’ll go and do that, and I’ll do that again and again and again. So much better to reserve your energy for creating things rather than using them to fight your instincts.
b. MINDFULNESS : The final point – being more conscious –more aware of what’s going on around you. I’m a bit of a mindfulness failure myself and yet, I also feel that maybe there isn’t a thing such as a mindfulness failure. I try to meditate, I try to remain aware, I try to detach myself from what’s going on often, and even though I often fail, I keep trying because if I take a longer term view, I know that I’m now a happier, calmer, more sorted person, a better and more patient parent – which doesn’t mean I didn’t lose it with my kids yesterday –but I saw myself from a detached perspective as I lost it with them and that means some progress. If we’re not growing as people as we grow older, I don’t think there’s much point to anything. Of all the reading I’ll recommend a book called ‘10% Happier by Dan Harris’ – a really practical overview on his journey with mindfulness.
I’ll wrap up by borrowing from the end of a speech by the remarkable Prof Anil Gupta from IIMA who has done some fantastic work in innovation for underprivileged societies; I listened to him years ago as he concluded a speech saying he had found his happiness in the intersection of Life, Love and Learning. It really connected to me. I think my own personal sweet spot in the intersection of Laughter, Love and Learning. And I try to check in with myself daily about whether I’ve had enough of a dose of all of these things. It keeps me going and it makes me feel good. I highly recommend writing your own recipe and using that as a standard for yourself on a daily basis. It’s really not that much about external benchmark of a job title or pay. I’m not saying those things aren’t important. But anything that comes from inside of you is worth paying attention to. Please pay attention to it.
Ultimately, a request: please, please don’t become one of those annoying people who say things like ‘Oh I always wanted to write a book’ or ‘I could have really made a mark with my photography’.
Don’t make excuses anymore.
Make the stuff you’re supposed to make.
Thank you and all the best ;)