Why over 40 executives at the brink of career change should pursue their ‘real’ passion instead of looking for another job.
Last weekend, I happened to catch up with an old friend in the US who wanted my advice on landing his next job. Close to 40, he sounded lost and anxious. He had lost his job with a Fortune500 a year before, moved cities and joined another company in a similar role, which also lasted only a year. So here he was back to looking for a job in a bad market and the tiredness showed in his voice. This was a guy with the best credentials that one could ask for and a great performer in the right role. But today I could not hear the ring of confidence or enthusiasm that was his hallmark. Very sadly he had become yet another victim of the corporate pyramid which relentlessly throws out people in larger numbers at every stage.
A recent research article by Vivek Wadhwa talks about how even in the Silicon Valley, age bias is rampant. Bay area firms prefer young engineers and have no qualms about turning away the 40+ folks. They have their reasons - young engineers cost less and do more. New technologies and new business models are better understood by youngsters and so on… But where does it leave the oldies? Gone are the days when at 50, one could start preparing for retirement. It was okay in our parent’s generation when life expectancy hovered in the 60s and most jobs paid a handsome pension to boot. We have grown up watching the older generation start winding down in their 50s. All they desired was to complete their pilgrimages and play the model caretaker role for grandkids. But today the reality is very different. Life expectancy is zooming past 75, and we see more and more people well into their 80s living a healthy life. What it means is that at 45 we still have more than half our career ahead of us, assuming that we started at 25. And in my opinion the 40s are truly the golden time for professionals. No worry of what parents would say about what you do with your career. No concern of having to buy the first house or car. Often enough, children are all set to move on and don’t need your constant attention (in fact, they want you out of their life for sometime!). Added to all this, you have learnt a lot more and have a great Rolodex to tap in case you need help. Then, why is it that most of us, instead of looking to pursue our passion, still look for the next similar job in a familiar environment? Why do we try to hang on, unwilling to let go of the safety net of our comfort zone? Why do we pursue the corporate pyramid with a single-minded zeal without looking at other options knowing fully well that with the best effort we are still not guaranteed a spot at the top.
As and when we become the next victim of the eventuality, our reaction is to give up and hang up our boots with a feeling of resignation and martyrdom. What a loss! Today all around us we see people embarking on a new voyage when they are on the wrong side of the 50s, and making an even bigger success of it than the first time around. If Manmohan Singh had called it a day and taken to consulting roles like most of his peers did, he would never have realized what he would have missed! He embarked on a second career in the scary jungle of politics at age 59 in 1991. By then, he had build such a strong credential that nobody and no scandal could touch his reputation. He did not get in with a “let me try my luck” mind-set. He put his heart and soul in it, and pursued his second career with the same passion as his first one. Political wilderness after Congress lost, losing his Lok Sabha election, nothing deterred him. He has achieved what people who start and end their career in politics fail to get - the CEO’s role for the country.
Perhaps Manmohan Singh was an outlier, skeptics would argue. But what about Nandan Nilekani, a poster child of our generation? Nandan at the ripe old age of 54, took it upon himself to move to New Delhi leaving family in Bangalore, to pursue his second career in Government. He could have taken an easy route like becoming an investor, or perhaps an armchair critique of how bad the country and its political class is. But he jumped in putting his name and neck on the block, looking every inch an entrepreneur with a new start-up!
All of us surely have hidden passions and forcefully subdued ideas. Otherwise, our country would never have produced the tons of engineers and MBAs that have become the envy of the world. I keep hearing people say that they would have loved to teach but for the salary. Our society has especially been harsh on creative folks. We have lost many a great painter, playwright and interior designer to the corporate world. Can they out themselves now and don a new Avatar? With their years of corporate experience, can they now think of creating a business out of directing and producing plays? Can they get enough friends to join them in it? And why not? The possibilities are endless and, believe it or not, so are the goodies for those who break out of their inertia. Following your heart and actually enjoying what you do can energize you like nothing can. Having fun while working would not be an oxymoron any more. Perhaps that is what makes the second career even more successful than the first one for most who venture out. Eric Schmidt stepped out of the comfort of being in large companies like Sun and Novell with thousands of customers, to join what was then a virtually unknown start-up, Google. That too as a part of the three-member management team with the founders who were actively involved in running the company with him. His compensation was $250K+bonus, far less than the $600K base he had at Novell and, perhaps, even Sun before that. But today, it is this decision that has defined him for posterity. In fact, the success rate seems to be favoring the 50’s. Gurcharan Das is now known more widely for his penmanship than for his corporate career with P&G. Again somebody who voluntarily jumped off the corporate chakki to start afresh as a writer at 55.
So if you are wondering what advice I gave to my friend, you have the answers now. Don’t look for another job, which will last till the next round of layoffs. Instead, pursue your real passion, unfettered by the concerns of youth. “Being 50 is the new 25” says a new research study commissioned by Benenden Healthcare, UK. How true! Ready to bounce off the Trampoline?