10/13: Pep

It was sometime in 2011 that we’d gone for a family function where Pinky had worn my mother’s jewellery. An uncle instantly recognised it commented that she’s wearing “old models”, and asking why I hadn’t gotten her any jewellery of her own.

Pinky had stayed quiet then, but about a year later when I was trying to build my own consulting practice (and living off the savings from the job I’d recently quit), demanded that I buy her a diamond necklace. Not really knowing what it might cost, I instantly agreed. It was after I had taken her to the shop and she liked something that I realised it was going to exhaust all my savings.

I had to redouble my business development efforts, and about a month after that got my first big consulting contract. Pinky later told me that the reason she had made me “invest” (whether buying jewellery is an investment or an expense is something we disagree on) then was to shake me off my comfort zone and get me out there to do real business.

Pinky has her own way of inspiring me to do more, and to do well in whatever job that I do. When I was on outstation consulting assignments, which meant leaving home at 4:30am to catch a flight, she would wake up an hour earlier to make sure I had hot water to shower in. As I got ready, she would get me coffee and even polish my shoes!

When I was writing the first draft of my book last year, which was a damn difficult process, she made sure we celebrated every little milestone. When I finished the very first draft she took me out for a fancy dinner to our favourite Japanese restaurant in Barcelona. This way, she made sure I remained motivated as I took the not-so-easy task of preparing the first draft.

She’s also not hesitated to use the stick. Every time during my consulting life when she’s felt I’m not doing enough work, she’s made sure to throw sufficient tantrums to make sure I don’t slack off. Each time she’s done that, I’ve found myself pursuing leads with renewed vigour, and managing to win some business or the other.

Pinky has also turned out to be a reliable career mentor. When I decided last month that I should look for full time roles as well, she helped me figure out how to go about the process (it was 8 years since I’d last applied for a full time job). She’s repeatedly sat down with me to review my business plans, and to guide me regarding the best course of action. When there have been consulting or job or partnering offers I’ve been unsure of, she’s dissected the problem in a way for the solution to become apparent to me.

There’s little more I could have asked for from a wife in terms of motivation!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

8/13: Dabba

9/13: UnPC

Anxiety and computer viruses

I think, and hope, that I’ve been cured of anxiety, which I was probably suffering from for over six years. It was a case of Murphy’s Law taken to its extreme. If anything can go wrong, it will, states the law, and in those six or seven years, I would subconsciously search for things that could possibly go wrong, and then worry about them. And worry about them so much that I would get paranoid.

Let me give you an example. Back in 2008, after a four-month spell of unemployment, I had signed up with a startup. Two days after I signed, which was three weeks before I was going to start work, I started worrying about the health of the startup founder, and what would happen to my career in case he happened to croak between then and my joining the company! It had been a major effort on my part to try and get back to finance, and that job was extremely important to me from a career signaling standpoint (it played a major role in my joining Goldman Sachs, subsequently, I think). So I started getting worried that if for some reason the founder died before I joined, that signaling wouldn’t happen! I worried about it for three days and broke my head about it, until sanity reigned.

This wasn’t a one-off. I would take ages to reply to emails because I would be paranoid that I had said something inappropriate. When I landed in Venice on vacation last year, my office blackberry didn’t get connected for an hour or so, and I thought that was because they had fired me while I was on vacation. It would be similar when I would look at my blackberry first thing in the morning after I woke up, and found no mails. I needed no real reason to worry about something. It was crazy.

When a virus attacks your computer, one of the ways in which it slows down the computer is by running “background processes”. These processes run in the background, independent of what you intend to do, but nevertheless take up so much of your computing power that it becomes extremely hard to function. Anxiety works pretty much the same way. Because there is always so much going on in your mind (most of it unintended, of course), a lot of your brain’s “computing power” is taken up in processing those unwanted thoughts (the brain, unfortunately, has no way of figuring out that those thoughts are unintended). And that leaves you with so much lesser mindspace to do what you want to do.

So you stop functioning. You stop being able to do as much as you were able to. Initially you don’t recognize this, until you bite of more than you could possibly chew a number of times in succession. And then, having failed to deliver on so many occasions, you lose confidence. And lesser confidence means more worry. Which means more background process. And means diminished mental ability. Things can spiral out of hand way too quickly.

I’ve been on anxiety medication for over seven months now, and the only times when I realize how bad things were are when I happen to miss a dose or two, and there is relapse. And having been through it, trust me, it is quite bad.

On the positive side, the impact a well-guided medication process (administered by an expert psychiatrist) can have on anxiety is also tremendous. For the six years I suffered, I had no clue that I was under a cloud of a clinically treatable condition. I didn’t know that it was only a virus that had attacked my CPU, which could be got rid off with sustained dosage of anti-virus, and I had instead thought my CPU itself was slowing down, maybe rusting (at the ripe old age of late twenties). After I started responding to my medication, I was delirious with happiness, with the realization that I hadn’t become dumb, after all.

It was sometime in March or April, I think, when I realized that my medication had come into effect, thus freeing up so much mind space, and I started feeling smart again. When I met the psychiatrist next, I told her, “I feel exactly the way I felt back in 2005 once again!”.

On mental math and consulting careers

Sometime last week, the wife wanted to know more about management consulting, and I was trying to explain to her the kind of work that consulting firms do. I told her that the two most important skills to have in order to be a successful consultant are structured thinking and people skills, and in order to illustrate the former I put her through a “case” on the lines of those that consulting firms use in order to interview.

The importance of structured thinking, I explained, lay in the fact that not all problems that consulting firms pose have a definitive solution, and structure helps you hedge against not being able to generate a solution. In the worst case, if you follow this approach, you would have made a contribution to the client solely by putting a structure on their problem, and by enabling them to think better about similar problems that cropped up in the future. This is also the reason that consulting firms use the much-touted (and much-abused) frameworks – they are a good method of structuring the problem, I said.

I then went on to talk about how I’m not much of a structured thinker, and how I frauded my way in through that during my consulting interviews nearly six years back. On joining a consulting firm, I’d found myself thoroughly disillusioned and out of my depth, and finding that the job called for a completely different set of skills than what I possessed. The nature of problem solving, I found, was very different from the kind I’d been mostly exposed to, and enjoyed. I quit in a matter of months.

I went on to narrate a story from my B-school days. It was about the final exam of a second year course, and I’ve blogged about it. The question presented a business problem and asked us to find a solution for it. I thought for a bit, figured out the solution (with a bit of thinking it was obvious) and explained it two or three paragraphs. My friend had instead put a structure on the problem, and used all possible applicable frameworks in order to structure it. He has been working for a consulting firm since graduation, and I’m told he’s doing rather well. You know my story.

So we talked a bit more about problem solving approaches, and how I could possibly structure my business now that I’m an independent consultant (given that I’m not a particularly structured person). During the course of this conversation I happened to mention that most of my early problem solving was in terms of programming. And the wife jumped on this. “You are a mental math guy, aren’t you?”, she asked. I nodded, feeling happy inside about those days when I would do three-digit multiplications in my head while my classmates still struggled with “six in the mind, four in the hand” methods of doing addition. “And you’re an algorithms guy, always trying to find the easiest method to solve problems?”, she continued. Again I replied in the affirmative. “Then how the hell could you even think that you would do well in a job that requires structured thinking?”

She has a point there. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? The more pertinent question now is about how I’m going to structure my data modeling business since it’s clear that I won’t be able to pull off the classical consulting model.

I’ve done it yet again

I quit my job earlier this week. I did so on Wednesday, the fourteenth. In hindsight, I should have waited another day and quit on the fifteenth, to coincide with the anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers. So for the fourth time in five years of career, I’ve quit a job without knowing where I’ll go next. The plan for the first month is to just chill and detox, and get back my sanity. Once that’s achieved, I’ll start thinking about where my next paycheque is going to come from (my employer promptly put me on Garden Leave, thus effectively giving me a month of  “free salary”).

You know what I miss the most about student life? The annual vacation! That once a year, you are entitled to spend two months or more doing absolutely nothing. I remember that friends chose to do academic projects during that time. Others got internships in companies. A few others chose to travel then. I used to do none of the above. I’d just sit at home in Bangalore and fatten myself (to compensate for the weight loss during the semester), and that ensured I started each semester in fairly high spirits (no I didn’t indulge in those spirits back then). The only time I did something “productive” during vacations was when it was an academic requirement to do a project.

I seriously miss having that annual two-month detox period. Yes, I know that my last employer gave me over twenty days of paid leave per year, but it wasn’t the same. You knew that it was a rationed resource, and you’d try to use it effectively. You’d go on vacation and immediately get on to a flight. You would land in Bangalore and head back to office within the next twenty four hours. You would sometimes need a break, take a day off from work, and then feel supremely guilty. It was on one such day sometime in the recent past that I realized that I miss vacations.

There exists a reasonable chance that I might choose to be self-employed (if things work out the way I intend, that is) but otherwise I need to find myself a job that gives me substantial vacation days a year, which I can take without any guilt. I realize that is absolutely necessary for me to keep myself charged up, and that if I had access to vacations the way I did during school/college I wouldn’t have taken a career break so many times after I started working.

My other objectives for this vacation are to travel (but it’s a bit tough given that the wife works and is subject to the twenty-days-of-paid-leave rules) and more importantly figure out for myself what my tradeoffs in life are. During my last job, I realized that I’d grossly misunderstood between my tradeoff between time and money. The other tradeoff I need to understand is the one between money and perks. And I want to write more.

Internal Conflict

When a bunch of friends and I described ourselves as a pantheon a few years back, I was War. Part of the reason was that in Hindu Mythology Karthik is the God of War, but more importantly, I was War because I was always at war with myself. With three others being conveniently called Disease, Hunger and Madness, and another being Death, we formed a formidable force indeed.

True to the name that these guys gave me all those years ago, for the last six months or so, I’ve been absolutely consumed by internal conflict. It mostly has to do with my professional career, which hasn’t particularly taken off the way I imagined it would when I graduated from IIMB some 5 years ago. For the first time ever, I’ve completed two years in a job, and things don’t particularly look rosy, especially if I evaluate myself based on where I could have been had I not made those big blunders.

A part of me wants to go easy upon myself, and not be too harsh. Everyone goes through tough phases, that part tells me, and that mine has been a wee bit longer than most people’s. This part tells me to not worry about peer pressure, and to concentrate on keeping myself peaceful and enjoying the good things in life. This part further asks me to not worry too much about the future and that things will get into a flow. And that despite my corporate career not exactly taking off, life isn’t all that bad.

The other part, on the other hand, holds me responsible for all my troubles. It tells me that it’s because of my mistakes in the past that I’m where I am, and that I need to work really hard to rectify them. This part takes me to LinkedIn, and shows me the wonderfully sculpted oh-so-successful careers some of my old associates seem to be having, just to prove the point that I’ve messed up. This part wants me to conform, and be a good employee, and climb the stairs in the same way others have, and follow the well-trodden path into successful corporate whoredom. And this path is also supported by those pesky relatives who ask you uncomfortable questions about your career every time you are unfortunate enough to bump into them.

The first part is quite worried about my health, both mental and physical, and believes that messing up one’s health is too high a price to pay for corporate success and the associate perks that it brings. The second says I need to learn to adapt, and somehow reduce the impact of my health, while still being a good corporate whore.

And like in that old Coffy Bite ad, the argument continues. Except that these two parts of myself have completely ravaged my head over the last few months. I’m reminded of the story of the Bherunda bird (the “state bird” of Karnataka) which has two heads and one body. The two heads get into a quarrel. One of them gets so upset that he drinks some poison, thus killing “both of them”. These two parts of me, by means of their continued conflict have ended up completely consuming me, and my head.

And here I am, trying to figure out once again what it means to chill.

Corporate Culture

In good times, when you like the core aspects of your job, you don’t really care about your “organizational culture”. You don’t care so much about how they treat you, about how they make you feel. All you care about is that you are enjoying your time there, that you think there’s some value that the job is adding to your life, and you are happy receiving your salary.

When your organization’s “culture” starts mattering is when things aren’t going all that well in your job. It’s when you stop liking the core aspects of your job, and start wondering why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s the time when all the “cultural” and “feel good” things about your job that come to the fore. That’s the time when any problems that you have with the organizational culture get highlighted, and you start focusing more on that and less on your work (after all, you’re trying to think whether there’s a reason apart from your core work for you to stay in the job).

As an employer, the risk with not paying attention to your organization’s culture is that when one of your employees doesn’t feel that good about his/her job (and this is bound to happen; irrespective of how much one loves his job, one is bound to go through these cycles), if he realizes that he doesn’t like the culture of your organization, it is that much more easier for him to get extremely disgruntled, and think of deserting ship. By maintaining a great organizational culture, on the other hand, even when someone is going through the troughs (in terms of core work), there is value that they see in sticking on to job, and living to see another day in the job, when (hopefully) the cycle would’ve been reversed.

As a prospective employee, if you see a high degree of attrition in a prospective employer, think twice before joining even if the core nature of work really appeals to you. For, the attrition indicates something is possibly wrong with the culture of the place, and that sooner or later that is bound to bite you.

S&P’s Responsibilities

Reading through some of the reactions from “experts” to the S&P’s downgrade of US debt, I see words such as “irresponsible”, “misguided” and “inappropriate” being bandied around. These experts seem to be of the view that in view of all that the US is already going through (given the debt crisis et al) it was not correct for the S&P to push it further down into the abyss by downgrading its debt.

Now, the S&P is a rating agency. Its job is to rate debt, categorizing it in terms of how likely an issuer is to honour the debt it issues. It is a privately held firm and it is not the job of the S&P to prevent global crises and save the world. In this case, the S&P has just done its job. And having been following the crisis for a while I’m of the opinion that it’s done the right thing (check Felix Salmon’s article on this; he says the downgrade is more due to the risk of the US’s willingness to not default, rather than its ability; given that there is no permanent solution yet to the debt ceiling and it issues all debt in its native currency).

If a simple move like this by a private company is going to bring down the world, it is because of screwed up regulations (read Basel 2 and Basel 3) that ended up giving way too much importance to firms such as this. And I’m sure the US had adequate representation at that meeting in Basel where the accord was adopted, so it can be partially held responsible for the enormous power that rating agencies currently wield.

The bottom line is that excessive regulations based on dodgy parameters have been responsible for a lot of the mess that we see today. #thatzwhy we need strong regulations.