What should you do with your life?


On the occasion of Children’s Day (2018), Sir wrote a very valuable piece advicing the students to choose their careers wisely, instead of just crazily running behind glamour and money.  

This children’s day, let’s talk about a time when you will no longer remain children.

Some of you dread this possibility. However, most of you are eagerly looking forward to it. After all, your education has been a preparation for adulthood — and you are excited that you will finally be able to reap the benefits of this investment: this unique education that you received.

Your talk and writings reflect this hope. You anticipate being leaders of corporations, famous movie directors, top bureaucrats, celebrated authors and successful entrepreneurs. Nothing will please me more if many of you indeed attain such glory and success. After all, that will provide the most convincing proof that our unconventional education is what education should truly be.

However, what I wish for you most is not success and glory, but happiness and contentment. And I am worried that with your sky-high expectations, you are setting yourself up for a life of misery and dissatisfaction.

It is time to remind you of the three basic rules that I discussed in the common meeting:

1. Life is suffering.

2. Extraordinary success is rare.

3. We all are grains of sand.

No matter how talented, wealthy or powerful, no one is going to escape misery. Being children, with your whole life ahead of you, you are understandably hopeful about your future. But tone down those expectations. Expect difficulties instead. Failure, disappointment, disease, bereavement, conflict — these are sure to come in everyone’s life. If you expect them, you will be more prepared to deal with them.

You not only do not expect much difficulty in your life, most of you expect to reach dizzying heights of success. At this point, it is important to remind you that out of the 7 billion people on earth, only a minuscule percentage become CEOs of big corporations, successful entrepreneurs, famous authors and movie-directors. How small is the percentage?

1%?

No. Think smaller.

0.1%?

No, think smaller still.

0.01%?

That’s 700,000 people. Do you think there are that many top CEOs, movie directors and famous authors? Not at all. Let’s take CEOs first.

I presume you don’t want to be the CEO of a company where you are the only employee — you want to have some employees to manage! So let’s talk about a reasonable size: a 2000-strong company. In the US, there are only 4794 companies with more than 2000 employees. So we can say there are only about 5,000 attractive CEO jobs in the US, and possibly 20,000 worldwide.

How many famous movie directors do you think are there in the world? This is an even rarer breed than CEOs. Again, given that you don’t want to be a movie director who did not ever commercially release a movie, less than 1000 will be a reasonable number here.

How many successful authors are there? Again, numbers are difficult to come by, but Wikipedia’s list of notable 20th century writers contain a sum total of 1113 names, most of whom you have not heard of. That’s only about 1000 reasonably successful writers over a century.

Well, let me not belabor the point. We are not reaching anywhere close to that 700,000 figure. With all the extraordinarily successful people combined, we might just reach around 70,000, if we are lucky — 0.001% of human population.

No matter how much I believe how special you all are, how very talented, I will be astonished if there is even one such success story among the 120 students that attend the common meeting every morning. Because that would mean our common meeting room has a 1% ratio of extraordinary success: 1000 times more than the rest of the world. Even with the great education we have imparted, I think that’s highly unlikely.

Let’s face it: SUCCESS IS RARE.

In addition, success is often counterproductive! Not all of those ‘successes’ that we discussed — the CEOs, movie directors, authors made the world a better place. Some exploited workers to amass wealth, some fed us simplistic stories to perpetuate harmful myths. Many of those who ‘changed the world’, mostly changed it for the worse. Only a rare few left a positive imprint in addition to being successful.

So success, in itself, may not be something to aspire for. In any case, extraordinary success is unlikely to come to you.

It is time for a bit of humility.

It is time to acknowledge we all are grains of sand.

It is time to note that most of you will just ‘get by’.

However, ‘getting by’ itself is an achievement in a world where more than 4 billion people live on $10 or less per day. That probably explains why a lot of you, and your parents are so excited about the possibility of studying in a top university. Though the graduates from even those top-50 universities of the world only command a mediocre $6,000 a month salary, that’s an exciting number compared to the abysmal $10 per day, which is the level most of the world population is at.

We live in a world where barely getting by will earn you bragging rights among neighbours and family members. You don’t need to be super-wealthy, you don’t need to achieve anything of note. The education that we provided you will equip you to get into one of those universities, get a mediocre job, earn a moderate sum of money, and that will put you above most of the humanity. That is the root cause behind the feeling of superiority most of you are going to experience even after leading a mediocre life.

You have the extreme poor to thank for this feeling of superiority. It is they who would give you the bragging rights without achieving anything of note.

Now, does that sound too inspiring?

Now that I have put your ‘success’ in perspective, perhaps you can try to aspire for what truly counts: happiness.

Let’s get this clear: happiness comes from work. It comes from being in the ‘zone’, it comes from accomplishing something challenging, it comes when your work makes a difference.

True happiness does not come from recreation. You may argue that you may feel happy at the company of a friend, but true friendships are also forged while working for a common cause.

Happiness is when what you love to do, what you are good at, and what the world needs are in harmony.

The Happiness Diagram

Happiness comes when you are in the overlapping area in this Venn Diagram: let’s call it the ‘Happiness Intersection’.

Now, if we reverse this diagram, this is what you might get:

The Pain Diagram

If you are at the intersection of work that you don’t like, work that you are not good at, and work that the world does not need — it’s guaranteed that you will be miserable.

Let’s call this the ‘Pain Intersection.’

I see that a lot of you are running fast towards this intersection. You are not thinking deeply about where you are going and whether you really want to go there.

To earn some minor bragging rights (relative to the abysmal standards of the most of the world), you sometimes feel pressured to do things that are conventional. You want to study, give exams, get a job. If the job sounds good (say, investment banking, or consulting), and if it’s in a place whose name sounds good (New York, or London), then you think you will be happy. But what will happen is this:

You will do work that you don’t like to do: Building spreadsheets with fake numbers, cold-calling, attending boring meetings, commuting long hours, having soulless conversations with colleagues will be the main components of your day.

Not just you, no one likes them. That’s why the world is full of dissatisfied employees.

You will do work that you are not good at: In this school we did not teach you the art of flattery. We did not teach you unquestioning obedience. We did not teach you to be a hypocrite. We did not teach you to accept the ways of world, no matter how nonsensical it seems.

Well, those are some of the skills that you have to be good at to survive in the world that you covet. But sadly, we are sending you out there without much training on those areas.

You will do work that the world does not need:In this world that you are thoughtlessly running towards, you will try to prove your identical soap or shampoo is superior to another. You will try to pitch to a client to raise capital that he does not want. You will sell yet another civilization game to bored teenagers. You will manage money for people who have plenty.

Having reached this Pain Intersection without much thought, you will then wonder what went so wrong in your life. Why are you so miserable? Maybe a job-change is in order? Or maybe you should leave this city and relocate elsewhere? Maybe you just need a vacation?

Well, none of those will provide you with any succour. Even after the job change, the relocation, and the foreign vacation, dissatisfaction will continue to reign.

Because you are firmly lodged at the Pain Intersection. And it’s almost impossible to get out of. By then, to earn further bragging rights, you have bought a car and spent a fortune (according to your standards) furnishing your house. You have to think about your child’s education fees. You have to send some money back to your parents.

No matter how much you hate it, you wake up on Monday morning and board that transit, with thousands of others who are in a similar mess. But that’s cold comfort.

It is at that point probably you think about those common meetings long time back, where you were warned about precisely this fate. Those days seem to be from a past era, a time of happiness that you can never touch again.

You think, how did it ever go so wrong? In those idealistic times, you did think about writing stories, analyzing movies, opening schools, spreading awareness about evils of technology. What happened to all those ideas?

Probably they were not very well thought through. They were fashionable at the school, so you parroted them. You did not think deeply about what made you happy. You did not think much about what you may be passionate about, what you are good at, and what the world needs.

We did lay out a path for you which incorporated these three areas. We knew that you love the school and would be happy spreading the kind of education it imparts. We knew that you would be good at it, being the products of this very place. We knew this is the education that the world needs.

In Path 1, you could have done all these that you dreamt of. You could have been an app developer, a movie critic, an author, a social commentator, an entrepreneur, an activist, a teacher, a psychologist, a leader — all rolled into one.

In the school, we developed more apps and softwares than many technology companies. We showed you, and the broader world, that movies can be educational. I personally wrote many articles which were instrumental in changing the mindsets of people. At every common meeting in the morning, I explained our society and the world to you. As I ran this school, I understood the finer points of business that are not taught in MBA schools. As I spoke to your parents in large gathering, I led them to dream bigger.

I have been an app developer, a movie critic, an author, a social commentator, an entrepreneur, an activist, a teacher, a psychologist, a leader — all rolled into one. Because I chose the perfect path, I have contributed to the world, I have been happy, and I have been successful.

You could have been all of those too.

More importantly, you would have been valuable to the world, you would have lived among people who you love and who love you.

Though happiness is always elusive, but maybe, just maybe, you could have found it.

***

Thankfully, this future is imaginary. You are not yet in the Pain Intersection, and it is within your power to prevent it from happening to you. After all, it’s your life, why should you sacrifice it for minor bragging rights granted to others?

You must aim for happiness. You must aim to be at the Happy Intersection.

All of you cannot choose the perfect path. We do not have that many positions. But you must aspire for it. You must work towards it before it’s too late. You should acquire skills, be responsible, be kind, and work actively to be the ‘chosen ones’ when the time comes.

Those of you who will not get the perfect path must also think deeply about what you like, what you are good at, and what the world needs. Maybe you will be able to create your own perfect path, like I could.

I wish you all the best.