Friday, February 14, 2014

Finding My Calling

As Steve Jobs said, you will know it when you will find it. True for love, true for a calling, and it is therefore the object of my search. 

I am one of those, despite the apparently well settled middle class life, who have to face 'what's wrong with you' question from well-wishers. They mean well, and slightly perplexed by my own refusal to do what's good for me. Really, how do I explain why I eschew a mortgage and even a long term commitment to live where I am? I used to say that I am yet to find my calling, but stopped doing this now, as more often than not people would confuse 'calling' for a 'job' and stop the conversation. I say - this is my nature.

Which is true, this is indeed my nature. This is why I lived in several countries and did different things. However hard I try to do the job at hand well - and I make a virtue of workmanship all the time - my goal is never to get subsumed by security of the middle class experience, but to find stimulation, the next goal, that idea which will keep me alive.

Some of my thinking may have been influenced by a story I read in school - in fact I had to read it as a part of our syllabus - but it was an odd story for a 15-year-old to read. This was a story by Rabindranath Tagore, a literary stalwart but slightly under-appreciated short story writer, titled 'Atithi', or 'The Guest'. This is a story of a boy, a feral character, who can't just settle. Even when he found a loving home, a welcoming host who wanted to marry him off with his daughter and take him into his family, he just had to leave: "Before the circles of affection-love-friendships could consume him....He escaped, one rainy evening, to return to the unemotional unattached Earth-mother".  It was one of those stories where we came to the end of it and turned over the page in a futile expectation of an usual happy ending, but found none. That shocked us, left us confused, wondering "what on earth".. and remained with me all my life. 

At a time when even tragedy is out of fashion in art, it is unusual to think that anyone talk about this story any more. I am not sure this makes it to the school syllabus anymore, but this is certainly not good instruction for would be Engineers and Doctors. I can't claim that the story's protagonist became my role model, given the very predictable path I followed after school, but the temptations of the wider world remained with me: My ambitions remained, as I have written earlier in this blog, to live the life of Robinson Crusoe, and indeed, I found myself in metaphorical ship-wrecks all too often.

There was a time in my career when I traveled frequently, spending more time in Dubai Airport Lounge than I did at home. I used to say then that my greatest career aspiration was to catch the 8:25 from East Croydon everyday. It did happen - I settled down into a life of predictability and routine - but only to discover that I didn't love it. Instead, I rediscovered my love of adventure, within the boring confines of my career, and my lost love, of history, of literature, of travel one more time.

So, as I get into U-Aspire, I feel I found my calling. Something Global, something to do with Education, something to do with aspirations and changing lives, all the elements that I wanted. It is still in its shaky, start-up phase, and what I do is far from what I would love to do. My bootstrap life is nothing about working with aspirational students in Africa and Asia, but rather catching 8:25 as I wished for, to earn just enough to pay my bills. But even then, this enterprise has liberated me because it has opened up that possibility for me, that I can live a different life and do things that I love. As I now talk about connecting the institutions in China, India, Vietnam, Nigeria and elsewhere to build a global community, I feel I found my calling. As I talk with philanthropic organisations to put a fund together to enable an Asian or African graduate's global dream, I feel all my trouble is worth it. Yes, even the life-destroying regularity of the morning commute!

Admittedly, it is too fragile, early stage thing to celebrate, but I celebrate not the achievement, but the possibility. I needed this feeling of getting out of bed to do something, and I have got it back now. I needed to find the energy to study again, engage again, write again, connect with people again, and I have got it back now. The next stage of my life should be more exciting: My one commitment to any investor in U-Aspire is that I shall go in the field and do it myself. So, for me, this is not about delivering from the cozy confines of suburban London, but to live in Africa or Middle East or Asia, wherever makes sense, working alongside partners and graduates to make this happen. Some people clearly don't believe I will do it: They would tell me that I don't realize that this would be life changing. They have no way of knowing that I really want to change my life.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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