[By Charis Gegelman on Unsplash]
It hit us when we met that 25 years had passed since the Class of ’93 graduated from one of the most sought-after institutions in India. Everyone had drifted and he had to move heaven and earth to get all of us together. A week after we parted ways, I now appreciate how heroic his effort was.
The import of why he did what he did has begun to sink in. He now lives a very deliberate life after a close brush with death. The only metric of success for him is time invested in relationships.
When in college, I hadn’t imagined a reunion of this kind. I always imagined that in the future, everyone will stay invested in the bio sciences; each of us will marry our heartthrobs; we will be friends forever; and that blue pixies and pink fairies exist. But here I was, staring at and listening to people who looked unfamiliar and sounded familiar.
A thought crossed the mind: How has each one’s life turned out?
It compelled me to ask my friend who had initiated this meeting to share his journey until now. I remember him as someone with a deep scientific temperament and who had moved to North America in search of better academic opportunities. It was easy to imagine him as the head of research at a global pharmaceutical giant; or an academic at a reputed institute. But he had crafted a career in marketing instead, built his own company and while at it, wooed a woman with whom he set up home. He told us he wanted to get rich, feel secure and be happy.
Like most startups, he pivoted many times so his life may gain traction. In his head, it was par for course.
What he kept away from those who had invested their faith in him, like his wife, young children, employees at a then fledgling firm, and early investors, was that he had hit the bottle and had morphed into an alcoholic. Until one day, he collapsed and was rushed into the Emergency Room.
It was time to face hard questions: What was he running as fast and as furious towards? What ghosts did he not want to confront?
He was a victim of child abuse. The long hours he spent at our lab in college was to escape the trauma at home. The multiple pivots in his career were attempts to morph into different personas so he could run even farther. And when he couldn’t run any more, alcohol was deployed to numb the mind. His body finally caved in.
Fact was, he had no self-esteem. The only metric he knew how to measure himself by was how others perceive him. How high up the professional ladder could he go? How rich could he become? He wasn’t living on his terms. Others dictated it.
It was only when death knocked that he took time out to introspect and finally acknowledge that nothing is the matter with him. He was a victim, not a perpetrator. What others think of him does not matter. What finally matters is how will he manage his life.
That is why, he continued, a metric he now deploys to measure himself, is to ask himself each day: How much time has he invested into cultivating meaningful relationships? That is why he had gone out of his way to reach out to the Class of ’93.
Like I said at the outset, his effort was heroic. I could hear everyone applaud silently.
Other stories followed. Turns out, practically everyone had done well professionally and had enviable resumes to show for it. But everyone, me included, spoke of what it takes to fight debilitating disease, feel exasperated at having to go through a messy divorce or be trapped in a toxic relationship, feel the pain of turbulent relationships with ageing parents, and regret not having spent quality time with children, among other things.
What was intended to be a dinner outing extended late into the night. The conversations struck a chord with everyone.
When I finally got into a cab to head home, I thought I could finally feel the full import of Clayton Christensen’s essay published in Harvard Business Review headlined How Will You Measure Your Life. He has spoken on the theme at multiple forums and pushed people to think about the question.
“Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and centre as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”
He is right. Nobody would deliberately want to be unhappy, get divorced or feel alienated. But they do. Because most people do not live deliberately. But how do you live deliberately?
A week after we met, a few pointers from Christensen’s essay and talks on the theme stand out for me.
Allocate resources where it matters
The first is something my brother and I have spent time talking about because of the difficulty involved in implementing it as a strategy. “…If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavours that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.”
What it means is that it takes time and effort to invest in a relationship with a spouse or a child. But we aren’t wired to invest in these relationships because the “return on investments” takes a very long while, at least 20 years, to make itself obvious.
There is much evidence to prove the returns on time invested with the family are exponentially high and as Christensen points out, “…intimate and loving relationships… are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.” But this is the kind of time that makes high-achievers impatient. The most obvious place to invest resources then is the career where performance is rewarded instantly.
More importantly, what metric do you deploy to measure intimacy and happiness? There is nothing you can compare it against either.
All outcomes lie across a spectrum
The second insight from Christensen, when extrapolated to these stories, is what drives people to debilitating illness (and penury in some cases). This is what he calls the Cost of a Marginal Mistake. I could hear it come through in everyone’s stories.
All of us believe every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But I have come to believe, every action has many potential outcomes.
Few people, however, have the mental muscle to imagine all of it and work deliberately to accomplish the best possible outcome. Those who can do it are second-order thinkers.
To get around it, Christensen offers a pointer: “…it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to just this once, based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.”
Basis experience and what I could hear that evening, I know how right Christensen is. In reminiscing about the conversation on my way back home, for all his superior intellect, as my friend described it, each time he thought he had sobered up, a voice in his head would urge him that “it’s okay to have one last drink”. It almost killed him.
This argument is one that most of us fall for. I am among those who have. If this is clear, the deliberate thing to do is avoid marginal mistakes.
Be a tri-sector athlete
When I saw him that evening, I knew something had changed. I couldn’t put my finger on it then. I can now. He had morphed into a tri-sector athlete. The political scientist Joseph Nye coined the phrase in the late 1990s to define a leader who can manage across the public, private and social sectors. My friend had figured out how to manage the self, family, and relationships that matter seamlessly.
In hindsight, I now know the only others who had figured their purpose in life, live deliberately, and be tri-sector athletes were the two teachers who were there with us. If any example of success be needed, it was them.
They looked content now, even indulgent perhaps. We were the first batch of graduates they had waved off, all of us had fond memories of them, and while everyone drifted from each other, we stayed connected with them. That is why, I suspect, when we got together, they had got personalised gifts for each of us.
Unlike many other teachers who could be intimidating, these two were our friends. I now know, the Class of ’93 may have seemed intimidating to them. After all, they weren’t much older than us and were stepping in to teach at one of the most elite institutions in India soon after they got faculty positions after many years pursuing their doctorates.
When it was their turn to speak, they spoke of how they got where they are, and continue to be. They had deliberately chosen to be teachers. Their return on investment was our gratitude and that of many batches which followed us.
Now, what metric do you measure gratitude by?