Career planning for the 21st century - Ninad Vengurlekar

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    Ninad Vengurlekar has over 20 years of corporate experience with over 14 years in EdTech. As a Vice President, he has headed verticals such as Retail Education, New Media and Content Development. He is a Masters in EdTech from Harvard University and an MBA in Advertising from NMIMS.

    In his famous Stanford Commencement Speech, Steve Jobs had advised the graduating class –

    “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” These words have become legendary, now that Jobs is no more. These are electric words. They are so powerful, that they make my hair stand up as I write.

    I have been having many discussions with parents about their children’s careers. It’s a stressful time for parents, I tell you. Most of us have been from the old economy and our kids want to make career choices of the new economy and we find ourselves in a helpless situation. Add to the fact that I am a parent of a daughter who would soon enter the career-planning phase in a few more years. So I am reflecting myself as I discuss career strategies with them and as I write here

    What is it about career plans that distress us parents? It’s the fact that they are in the unknown space of a future and we are forced to decide in the present which makes us nervous as hell. What if the career choice is wrong? What if? But does all this really matter in the end? It really doesn’t. I tell you. Trust me on this.

    Look at the serendipity of my own career. I got into commerce because I was caught by a TC without a ticket on a train and missed my science admissions. This is how my career began. During my college days, since there was no concept of pocket money, I did odd jobs to earn money to fend for myself. These included selling Kandeels (festive lights) during Diwali, drafting engineering drawings, doing marriage photography, etc. Nobody in my house knew what I did and how much I earned and where I spent that money.

    Post my graduation, I got into a hotel job, lasted for 21 days and ran away from there. I was jobless for a year after that. I tried doing CFA, but failed twice. Later I decided to do an MBA, but my father refused to pay for it. So I decided to look for a job. I joined Marico as an accountant for 2 years. In my interview I could not answer basic accounting questions, though I had passed commerce with a first class. The HR head told me she selected me because I was honest with my answers :)

    Post my MBA entrance, I got into MMS at Somaiya and a advertising course in NMIMS. I chose an non-recognised course because I wanted to get into movies. Post 2 years of fun and learning, I chose to join a visual effects studio. I worked with big channels and movie banners, rubbed shoulders with stars, directors and filmi junta. I was so filmi that my wife used to call me Kuku Kohli because of my dress sense of wearing denims, shirts and boots :)

    Frustrated with the lack of professionalism, I quit and joined a start-up. Met some great people there, worked my ass off and learned to think big. The Internet bust in 2000 busted us. This was the time I read a book called “What do I do with my life?” by a guy called Po Bronson. The book changed how I looked at my career. For the first time after school, college and 8 years of work experience, I decided to follow my heart. The day that happened, everything just fell in place. I joined education, because it was a combination of social development and technology. I loved all of it.

    Within 4 years, because of prodding by a dear friend, I decided to quit my job and go for further studies to the U.S. I took a sabbatical for 3 months, gave my GRE and applied to the top 5 Edtech colleges. To my disbelief, I got into Columbia, Winconsin, Harvard and NYU. Vanderbilt rejected me.

    So this is how my real career actually started. 14 years after I graduated from college. There was no career tests, no counseling and no career guidance. But there was plenty of struggle, courage, frustration and fight for survival and yes, the unending search to find meaning in the work I did. That to me was a great experience in itself.

    Now rewind your own career and see the similarities in what I did. The indecision, the imperfection, the instabilities, the inconsistencies, the blame game, the inexperience, the fear, shame, struggle, pain, insults, – I am sure you all have gone through all this. So why do you want to change it for your kids? In any case, it will never change for our kids, however careful we are. They will have to go through the mess of planning a career, and learn. The key is to reduce the stress. That is all we can do.

    So let me tell you how.

    My own career experience has taught me 2 key things -

    1. You should always plan to chase what you love at whatever point in life. If what you love changes, so will your career. It is insane to decide about how your work life is going to be at the age of 20.

    2. While you may not be able to choose the right career, you surely can learn to work your way up through hard work, ingenuity, initiative and entrepreneurial attitude – until you find one. That may take a year or 20 years. The guys who become successful and famous are the ones who never stop chasing that perfection of matching their work with their passion. And when it is matched, magic starts happening.

    Despite this, most of us choose the easy route. We commit ourselves to a career and bore ourselves to death trying to make it work for us. But it doesn’t. Our heart is not in it. Everything else is just rigmarole – a daily, unbearable grind going nowhere. Why does this happen? Steven Pressfield calls this concept – a “Shadow Career” – in one of my favorite books – Turning Pro. He writes -

    “Sometimes, when we are terrified of embracing our true calling, we pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. It’s shape is similar, it’s contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail in a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

    In the shadow life we live in entail and we act by addiction. We pursue callings that take us nowhere and permit ourselves to be controlled by compulsions that we cannot understand and whose outcomes serve only to keep us caged, unconscious and going nowhere.

    The shadow life is the life of an amateur. In the shadow life we pursue false objects and act upon inverted ambitions. The shadow life, the life of the amateur and the addict, is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to get back.”

    This happens to many of us. Some of us get out off it by chance or by design. Some don’t because of the fear and resistance, or a combination of both. Either ways, they lose. They might earn money, but they yearn, they are unhappy with what they do. I have lived a shadow life, a shadow career myself, and so I can tell you how it feels. It’s a #$#%^ up feeling.

    I don’t think I want my child or anybody else’s child to live that life. Imagine what I suffered and learned from - I cannot, not inculcate it in my kid. If I do not want a shadow career for my child, I need to start where my career search ended. Mine has ended with passion and love for what I do. So I would want my child to start from there. “Learn to chase what you love” — that is undoubtedly the first step of your child’s career journey.

    The second step is to find out if there is one billionaire or an internationally respected person in the world doing what your kid wants to do. If there is, then be rest assured about your child’s career choice - because even the billionaire was once a rookie.

    The third step is to teach your kid the value of hard work, facing their fears and resistance, to show up everyday until the smallest task in done, to build things that makes her an artist – whatever field he might be in, to take risks, to not be afraid to fail and try one more time, to innovate, solve problems – not crib about one, to do different things and to win, not survive. These are the skills the future wants your child to learn. Not degrees and diplomas. They mean nothing really, if you want your kid to change the world. Ask Jobs and Gates about it :-)

    And the fourth and most important step is to trust your kid. That come what may, he will make it happen for her. Like you did it for yourself. If you didn’t, then all the more reason you must allow her to soar with her passion. I know you will. That is probably why he looks up to you in the first place :-)


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