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On why it doesn’t matter what I will be when I grow up

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About the Author :

A gold medalist from NIT Surat and Young Alumni Achiever from IIM Ahmadabad, Suraj is the co-founder of The Eka Fellowship. He is the former Managing Director of Quess Corp and Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company. He lives in Bangalore with his wife and two sons, and is a passionate photographer, gardener, cook, and vinyl collector.

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Why,” Neeraj asked, “are you feeling good about this birthday? You’ve always said you hate birthdays“.

It’s true that I felt more positive, turning 48 this year, than I have on any of my recent birthdays. It’s also true that these birthdays felt like fleeting milestones counting down the rapidly reducing distance to a potentially unpleasant destination. A ticking tock in the race against the clock.

So, why did this year feel different?

An important bit of context is that it’s been 2 years since I’ve been in a full-time corporate role. 2 years’ time to assess my standalone life, independent of consolidated titles, targets, and teams.

It was terrifying, at first, to be devoid of this scaffolding. Excruciating to wake up each morning to an empty calendar. Directionless to be living in an untargeted quarter. The withdrawal from monthly payslips was nightmarish.

Over time, though, the fear has gradually faded, making way for a refreshing curiosity. I’ve reconnected with old friends and reached out to new ones. Created ‘keep’ and ‘throw’ piles of old notebooks and cufflinks. Interviewed, for new roles and been in new podcasts. Wrote journal entries and ripped up bucket lists.

And, slowly, new perspectives have emerged. Surely enough, and in true McKinsey fashion, I’ve found myself clean-sheeting 3 crucial relationships:

1. With Time:

As with many of us, I focused my first 20 years on securing ‘the rest of my life’. Since then, I’ve consistently thought through life 2 years at a time. Approaching the 50-year mark, I’m finally once again taking a longer-term view of what I want to do with ‘the rest of my life’. Clean-sheeting the time left has given me clarity on what to keep (e.g., working with people I like, coaching and learning, building purposefully) and what I no longer need to tolerate (e.g., distracting relationships, meaningless goals). The results have been rewarding and unexpected. Pursuing purpose has resulted in launching a not-for-profit (www.ekafellowship.org), and also piloting businesses in areas as diverse as reforestation and adolescent education – both areas I’ve had no experience with in the past!  

2. With Self:

A wise uncle once told me that the human body is like a mango. You don’t know where it’s been bumped while it’s green, but those very spots blacken first as it ripens. A few years ago, I clearly started to ripen! Clean-sheeting my relationship with myself has meant feeling guilt-free about saying no to red-eyes, skipping airline meals, creating a made-to-measure fitness program, and cooking meals at home for the family. I also indulge myself in reading less and lying in the sun more. 

3. With Money:

I was raised to be an economic machine. And so I spent my years. I measured my worth in annual compensation, rather than AUM. ‘Savings’ were a nest egg to be drawn down in old age, rather than a potentially perpetual source of annuities. My perception of how much money I ‘needed’ was driven by the things I saw The Joneses buying, rather than how much I actually spent myself. Strangely, the more money I earned, the more locked-in I felt. Clean-sheeting my spending and fully understanding my ability to generate income even without a full-time job has helped me obsess less about money, internalising its value as an enabler rather than a goal.

So here I am now. Perhaps I’ll go back to the corporate world, or perhaps I won’t. Perhaps I’ll build a huge business, or perhaps I won’t. Perhaps I’ll throw away the cleansheets, or perhaps I won’t.

Like each of us, I have no clue what I’ll be when I grow up.

But for now, I’ll allow myself a little bit of happiness, taking time to enjoy the journey between each milestone rather than focusing on the dreaded destination.

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