The Quietest Hour

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There have been a few rare moments in my life until now when people have asked me to dish out career advice. I used to find such moments filled with tasteful irony because then, I myself have been groping in the darkness; what light could I offer to anyone else then? Yet I would not shy away from presenting any amount of useful information that I might have picked up over the years, and found that people did interpret such evidence in a way quite useful to them and I would like to believe that it made some difference to their understanding and that they went back a little wiser than before coming to me.

Nowadays, I follow a very different method to guide my life decisions. But before today, even I sought out advice, precise advice actually, asking pointed questions such ‘Should I do an MBA?’, ‘Should I do CS, CWA and Law so that I have more degrees on my visiting /marriage card?’, ‘Should I practice or get a job?’, ‘Is day-dreaming a viable career option?’ and such. I think for most of my life, I followed a combination of gut instinct and prudence. It kept me in a safe zone and yet there was a sense of excitement, now and then, as I did the next thing expected of me.

Little did I realize that the excitement came from doing the next logical step, and not from something that was my life’s work.

It is quite a logical right, everything is set in place. 12th after 10th, then graduation, then a specialization or PG, then Ph.D. even. I am not saying that one shouldn’t indulge in such practices that ‘set’ us up for life, but rather, we mistake logic for excitement. That in doing what is the next logical step, we have a sense of accomplishment and a sense of excitement in doing something new, that we never pause to ask if this is what will keep me excited for the rest of my life. But I’m sure already asking the question in your mind. Surely, such a false sense of excitement should die one day?

And when it did for me, I decided to do an MBA. Things should have come to a head for me, yet I was not ready to step in to the next logical thing – work. It did not excite me. I wanted to pursue another form of excitement, a new form of achievement and what better than an MBA to top your cup with the bubbling froth of newness.

At this point, I come to a story I haven’t told many people in my life. Only a few are privy to it. Yet now I think the statute of limitations has passed on that.

Before I decided to pursue the path to even do an MBA, I sought out advice on whether I should actually do it. And if I did swallow that pill, what rabbit hole would it take me down to?

Out of many people who counselled me, one man remains who struck a deep chord.

I remember that morning. It had rained the previous night and a typical Bangalore chill was in the air. After I had knocked, I was let in by the lady of the house, a woman well in her 60s. She asked me to have a seat by the window in the living room, a tastefully decorated place. I took my seat on a cane chair opposite a huge empty cushioned chair positioned right in front of a bookshelf. As I waited, I let my eyes wander around the room and then finally land on the many books adorning his shelf. A lot of books with deep-meaning titles stood out; I suddenly was impressed and looking forward to the conversation I was about to have. You can usually gauge a person by the books they read. And at those times, being quite naïve in my perceptions about the world, anything fraught with a deep meaning presented an attractive proposition to me.

Then he came and sat in the chair opposite me, offering me tea, pleasantries etc. which when once out of the way, he directly asked me a question before I could venture out with my questionnaire:

“Why do you want to do an MBA?”

I was taken aback a bit, but I went ahead and gave him the stock answer I had prepared and convinced myself with – I had a good grounding in finance and I wanted to get on to the side of the management... blah blah... the answer does not matter.

He was not convinced. He said, “You don’t sound convinced yourself”.

He then asked, “What do you really want to do in life?”

I shifted a bit uncomfortably in my chair and gave another stock answer.

He smiled and said, “I think you have not thought about this question well enough. Do one thing, take a few days off, go on a trip alone.

Just anywhere your fancy takes you. Do you love nature? Perfect, go somewhere green and peaceful and be with yourself. When the voices in your head die down, in your quietest hour, you’ll hear the only thing that matters.”

The conversation then shifted to other general things, but regarding MBA, he only had that much to say.

I loved travelling and I still do. And I was delighted by his suggestion, though I admit I didn’t really think much about the purpose of the suggestion.

It was a wonderful trip; when you are alone, all the bullshit just strips away. It is just you and silence for a long, long time. I discovered and confronted many things about myself, especially the façade I put up with the world. When you are alone among strangers, there is a peculiar comfort in being yourself.

When I came back, I went ahead and did the MBA.

Do not assume that the natural result of my trip was to do MBA. I did MBA, because even before I went on the trip, I had decided to do it.

But, by God, what I learnt doing this magical course, brought things upon its head like nothing ever had for me.

It should have struck me when the kind man warned me to do a thorough soul-searching before I ventured out with any life decision, but time has its own schedule for you, how much ever you may try to program it. The course turned me inside out, almost physically and mentally. And I was for what I was there; nothing more, nothing less.

Lest I miss the point, this is not a post advocating the benefits of doing an MBA course, but rather on the path of looking inside.

It is a much ignored, much feared and many times ridiculed topic. “Don’t give me gyaan” or “Stop with your philosophy dude, no one understands it” “Understanding yourself is not possible, seems like a hoax” etc. It still is perceived that way. But I have a feeling that every single being on this earth will undertake this process, but at different points in their life. Some early, some late, but they all will. I feel it is better if it happens a bit earlier in your life. Because if it is too late, you may decide not to do anything about it, and then go on leading life, as is.

And how is this related to career advice, you ask? Let me take help of Rainer Maria Rilke to phrase it, because I could never do it as well as he did (he says this in terms of writing, but you could as easily replace it with MBA or any other life decision that you may be contemplating upon):

“No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse”

I began this process, while I did my MBA. I confess, I am still in its grasp, thrashing about and figuring out what holds for me, to be the truth. The above paragraph by Rainer summarizes my efforts in this endeavour, though I am far from where I desire to be. But an arrow has taken shape along the road now, pointing me the paths I would tread. I will soon be standing at another cross-road, and where shall it take me, I wonder? A path that I dare to tread or another irony?

The answer lies in my quietest hour.

About the writer - Vishal S Rao

An MBA from IIM Bangalore and a rank holder Chartered Accountant, Vishal is a deep thinker. A man of few words, Vishal more than makes up for it through his writings. His words are measured with intricate meaning hidden in them.

Vishal has worked for KPMG and was in a leadership role at Aditya Birla. Currently, he is trying his hands at the restaurant business.

 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author.

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