Picture a typical urban professional today. He or she is in a demanding job, or is possibly an entrepreneur, fervently trying to succeed. (S)he tries to juggle family commitments, business networking and a hectic social calendar with yoga, gym visits, reading and trying to unwind by learning Zumba or the ukulele or training for a half-marathon.
Yet at another level, the story looks different. This person flits mechanically from one task to another, chasing a list of to-dos all the time, feeling like an automaton lacking control over his life. The accolades and achievements somehow seem soulless, devoid of joy. Instead of energising him, this flurry of activity leaves him drained and depleted.
Sounds familiar? This was me seven years ago, as I tried to balance the demands of my job, which entailed extensive corporate travel and deadlines, with family commitments and my passion for writing. This picture also probably describes you or a family member or colleague.
This state is representative of our era. Today, we are more pressed for time than ever before. We focus on doing more, earning more, hustling more. We may have more knowledge, but do we have wisdom? We may have more money, but are we truly wealthy? We talk more but are we really saying anything? We interact with many people, but are we truly connecting?
It was a long time ago, during my college days, that I attended my first mindfulness meditation retreat. For 10 days, there was no access to newspapers, television or phones. Since it was a ‘silent’ camp, I could not talk to anybody either.
For the first few days, I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms. But after that, as I felt a sense of unprecedented calm, a realisation dawned on me. Most of the paraphernalia of life that we regard as necessities are actually dispensable. We need very little to live happily.
The ancient Taoist text Tao Te Ching says, “In pursuit of knowledge, you add something every day. In pursuit of the Tao, you shed something every day.” The Tao symbolises the way of the universe, the reservoir of all creativity, a force that transcends knowledge.
Whether food, social media or news, we are ingesting more than we can process. Maybe the solution lies in shedding our preoccupations and our layers of inertia and pride. In saying no to mindless activity that drains us, in reducing chatter that clutters the mind. Even between friends, silences can sometimes be more profound than conversation. The famous sage Sri Ramana Maharshi often used silence as a means of spiritual instruction. To quote from my book KaalKoot, “He who finds the rhythm of stillness shall finally hear the sound of his heart.”
This idea finds echoes in the world of business too. Throughout my career, I have seen that successful companies have been able to define what they stand for in simple terms. ‘Think different’ from Apple, ‘Just do it’ from Nike, the list goes on. The desire to be all things to all people actually masks a lack of conviction in your core beliefs, a recipe for mediocrity. To avoid this, we need to “shed something every day.”
But shedding is easier said than done. My fellow writers will attest to the difficulty of condensing years of sweat and toil into a 150-word synopsis for a book. Shedding requires you to say no to things, to make choices. It requires you to put the full weight of effort behind your convictions, to see it tested through setbacks and challenges.
In my case, seven years ago, I had to decide how important creativity really was to me. I took a leap of faith, opting out of the structure of the typical corporate job and focusing on my writing and on setting up a boutique management consulting firm. Today, I am at a better equilibrium, but there were many points along the way when my resolve was sorely tested.
Hectic engagements, deadlines and to-do lists, all cloister around us for a reason, that of keeping us away from the central purpose of our lives. To paraphrase author Stephen King, these are the ‘haftas’ that constantly gnaw away as us, keeping us from the ‘wantas’, the creative pursuits that energise us.
But there is hope. To quote again from KaalKoot, “Profound urges stem from a spring so deep that no mortal force can extinguish them. They lie dormant, biding their time, until a ray of light begins to draw them out.”
Shining that ray of light is in our control. We can make a beginning, by “shedding something every day.”
S Venkatesh is the author of AgniBaan and KaalKoot, and an investor who has held leadership positions with JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Macquarie.