Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Search of the Flea

The Elephant and The Flea, when I read the book some years back, left a deep impression. Then, I was trying to live off the elephant; life of a manager in a large company in India, carrying out plans and orders of managers senior to me. I must admit that I did not dislike it that much: It was fine, as I was paid well and well recognized. I was, in fact, sort of a bluish eyed boy, often recognized, often rewarded. There were disappointments, of course; when the salary increase did not match my expectations, or I missed out on an Excellence Award, or when I was not sent for a conference. But these were not life-shattering.

The good thing was the business card. Everyone knew the company I worked for. It was in the stock market - it was one of the index companies for a while - so everyone knew we are large and doing well. When I handed out my card, I watched with interest how the eyes of the beholder went about it - first to the logo, then to the word 'manager' and then to my face - I was instantly someone! It gave me a lot of pleasure.

But one thing surely bored me. The KPIs. Or, Key Performance Indicators. I am a Gemini, I shouted inside me. Why tie me down when I can see the possibilities and create them? One full year on assuring student satisfaction in two thousand square feet centre and making sure the license partners pay their dues on time? All very worthy causes, indeed, but I almost marked down my days on the calendar and waited for the end of month payout, when all the trouble made sense as my depleting bank balance leaped back to where it was the previous month-end and I could go back home with a takeaway dinner.

I was on a passenger mode. Sitting in a train watching stations to go by, and waiting for my station to come, so that I can get off and be relieved. I had read the script - marriage, children, mortgage, holidays, retirement, death - as everyone in my family, in my locality, in my state, in my country, read. It was a simple script, rather liberating, one did not have to take too much trouble to live up to it. But it was boring. I took a few books to read on the train, just to pass time. But it was a rather long journey and crime thrillers became boring after a while. My hopes of playing detective or rescuing a stunning beauty soon evaporated, as I developed a paunch and became myopic. But then I landed up with Charles Handy.

It meant nothing, indeed. Handy said he woke up on 50th birthday morning and decided to get off the elephant and live a flea's life, an independent agent. He said that's the way world will become, new careers will be more of those of independent contractors than of bonded executives. The projection made sense, but there was little value in transitioning from one to other. I reasoned - you become a contractor if you can't become an executive. Further down the book, when he described the joys of the independent life, I told myself - I am not finished with the elephant: not so successful that I can throw away all of what I have, all of what I was going forward to.

My station, that is. A happy life. Own house with a garden perhaps. A bit of me time. One holiday a year, when I can switch off my mobile phone and my mind. A weekend gateway sometimes. My wife, happy and not complaining, perhaps too busy to watch Desperate Housewives. My son in school - it must be good school so that he can get on to same train when his time comes. I could not simply give up all these for becoming a flea, just for feeling free every morning, making my own cup of coffee and drawing up my own agenda, to-do list, instead of being handed down one.

But, then, I left home. There is a terrible thing about travel and recession - they push you to ask questions, to pull the chain and stop the train. That's exactly what happened to me. Suddenly, life went on a full circle. The station printed on my ticket became smudged, made no sense. I was in a different country, and however much I shouted my previous companies name and printed it on bold letters on my CV, no one paid any heed. I suddenly faced the world all by myself.

Soon enough, I found my elephants. I was too afraid not to do it. After all, I had a rent and an EMI to pay. I needed the pay cheque. This time, of course, some one told me that I can actually earn more by being myself than being a Director. That stopped me for a moment - after all, money was important - but then I realized the truth. I have no myself. I have never been anything other than a business card all my life. Since I left college. I always wanted to have some good-looking logo on myself. And, that magic word - manager - on my card. I so truly admire the way people look at those and look at myself. Things may have moved from business card days to Linkedin days, but it is still the same - who would want to connect with me if I am not the director of a mid-sized UK company?

But, as I said before, recessions are wonderful times to ask questions. That almost makes you guilt-free. The elephant in mud, that's the thing about recession. For all its pain, its a celebration of creative destruction. It is freedom from EMI thinking, because even clinging to the elephant does not guarantee that your bank balance will leap back to where it was last month-end. Fancy designations on the card seems meaningless - as the kid down the block knows that CEOs get fired too. Bank Managers don't care about your pay slip anymore - they do not have any money to give - and all bets are suddenly off, all trappings are gone.

I have played this game of illusion of security. Too long for my life, I turned down opportunities for my KPIs. For too long, I traded the business card for myself. But I am almost 40 - ten years younger than Handy, but much less accomplished and hence much more hungry - and I have reached my inflection point now.

Recession is a great excuse. One would think the opposite: If you leave a job in recession, don't you think it will look like you were fired? But, there is no shame in getting fired even, because everyone is getting fired anyway; it is indeed so liberating to be wanting to be fired, to be freed. It makes you feel, yes, the unbearable lightness of being, the adventure of daily commute by train, the thirst for your own coffee and the intense charm of your own to-do list.

I know I want to be a flea.

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