So, why cling on to stuff, why fight over them?
I was amused to note that the Times of India Group has served a legal notice on Arnab Goswami asking him to desist from using his now famous phrase – “the Nation wants to know” – on his TV shows in the future. While the TOI notice made quite a sensation on social media, it left me with several questions. Why do people cling on to stuff? Why do they want to fight over them? Why try to control the actions of other people in contexts that are best left alone?
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not against protecting intellectual property or material wealth or physical property. But a large media group, a behemoth, wanting to restrain a former editor from using a ubiquitous phrase, that had come to be identified with him over the past decade, to me, personally, smacked of a certain lack of spiritual depth.
The truth about our lives is that we came empty-handed and we will leave empty-handed. In this time that we are here, everything that is with us, is given here, is taken from here. And everything that is with us, will be taken away from us. Either when you are alive. Or when you die, it will pass on to someone else. So, spiritual awareness demands that we stop clinging on to stuff. If you are spiritually aware, if you are awakened, you will understand the futility of fighting, of wanting to control, of desiring to possess.
I must confess I was never this way. Life’s experiences have changed me.
To be sure, I was pretty much in the Times of India thinking mold. Everything – and everyone – I reasoned, had to be controlled. And just when I thought I had arrived, by clawing my way through Life, by fighting and winning so many battles, everything I had created or acquired to cobble together my little empire, everything was taken away from me!
The bankruptcy hit us in end-2007. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) But it was an episode in 2012 April that made me understand and awaken to the transient nature of Life.
We had long closed down all our offices, including the one in Chennai. We had taken up a small two-bedroom apartment, which primarily served as a holding area for all our files and documentation – that were statutorily required to be maintained. The premises also held our personal collection of over 1500 books, all of them dealing with management, self-help and spirituality, collected over 20 years. But soon, we were unable to meet the rental commitment for this space too. So, in April 2012, we worked on vacating the place. All month we sat, Vaani and I, on the ground, each day, sorting and shredding stuff that we couldn’t shift to our home. Among stuff that wasn’t going to make it with us were those books from the private library. We gave away 1300 of them to a friend who runs a training company in Bangalore. He drove down to pick up them up. I also personally shredded the wall-mountable props of the Vision and Mission statements of our erstwhile Firm. It was catharsis. It was as if I was completing the last rites for our dream child, our Firm that we had found 16 years ago with the Vision of being a global consulting Firm.
That night, over a drink, I cried. Literally and figuratively, I was presiding over the ruins of an empire that once was. And now there was nothing. As I soaked in the futility of my grief, I made peace with myself. I understood that Life is not only about dreaming, striving, achieving, owning and controlling. Life is also about losing – what you have owned, what you have created – and about not getting what you want. It was a magical moment of awakening.
Ever since, I have found myself getting better dealing with denials, rejections and loss. So, while I still believe you must take adequate measures, living in a real world as we all do, to protect what is rightfully yours, you must avoid this urge to want to control, to fight and to possess stuff – things, people, opinions – and claim them as your own. Such a struggle will only take you away from living in the moment, from being happy. And, besides, without a shred of doubt it can be said that nothing, absolutely nothing, is going with you!
Revisit the past – only if you must; more to see how far you have come and never to brood over what could have been.
Today is special for two reasons – it marks 20 years of entrepreneurship for Vaani and me; and it is also the second anniversary of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal’s (Westland) launch.
It was on August 1, 1996, that Vaani and I set up imagequity+, Asia’s first Reputation Management Company, in our small apartment on Second Main Road, R.A.Puram, near the Kaliappa Hospitals (now Billroth) in Chennai. We set it up with all our love, passion and vigor – in the 50th year of Indian Independence even as Rahman’s Vande Mataram tugged at our heart strings – to be the consulting Firm from India for the world. We grew fast and grew well in the first 5~7 years of our existence. And then we made mistakes. Strategic ones. That changed the course our Firm – and our lives – took, forever.
It is almost 9 years since that Firm went bankrupt. I remember how, four years ago, I sat on the ground in a makeshift office (where we had moved, unable to sustain operating costs following our business going bust), and personally shredded display boards and signages of the Firm’s Purpose, Vision and Values. In the journey of the last 20 years as an entrepreneur, that was the most numbing moment for me personally. I was literally, and figuratively, presiding over the funeral of a Firm that we had birthed with Purpose, with Vision and with integrity. Even so, despite the catharsis, we feel no bitterness in us. Yes, there is great pain – owing to the physical demands that a bankruptcy places on your Life – cashlessness, worklessness, cluelessness and lightlessness in a dark, seemingly endless, tunnel. But there is no aftertaste – no regret, no heartache, no sense of loss, grief or suffering.
I believe our non-suffering state has been achieved by treating this period of material loss and acute physical strain, as one of awakening and evolving. And this is the spirit of my Book as well. I wrote it through the darkest phase of our Life. I wrote it because I first wanted to share with my children how you journey through Life, how you flow with Life, as it happens. At their insistence I took an edited manuscript to Westland’s Gautam Padmanabhan who put it to review and vote with his editorial board. Karthik Venkatesh, a key member of that board, gave me infinite support and direction as we prepared, over the summer of that year, to release it on August 1, 2014.
Fall Like A Rose Petal, even as I wrote it, and even now, continues to be a spiritual journey. My story has no beginning. And it has no end that I can see. Yes, someday in the future, Vaani and I hope, the physicality of our bankruptcy will end and we will eventually become debt-free. But I don’t think we can ever repay the debt of gratitude that we owe our 179 Angels, our creditors, who came forward and selflessly supported us and to whom we still owe money. So, this journey will continue as a means of continuously evolving, hopefully paying it forward by way of being as compassionate with others in need as the Universe has been with us.
Dates, anniversaries and wishes of what could have been don’t make sense to me anymore. They are but ways of reminding yourself that this is where you are in Life – having traveled from where you once were! At least, that’s how I have learnt to look at Life. I realize that merely clinging on to the start of my entrepreneurial journey, this day, 20 years ago, will keep me chained to the past; a past that is dead. Instead, I am eternally grateful for my past – for, without the experience of being an entrepreneur, without leading, winning and getting whatever I wanted, without making mistakes, without stumbling, falling, going bust and broke, without pennilessless and worklessness, I may have never discovered the power of reflection, resilience and resourcefulness. I may have never written my Book – which has connected me to hundreds of people who have found the lessons I have shared very useful to cope with their own Life situations. Without turning an author, I may have never been delivering Talks and curating events that inspire happiness. I may have never taken to writing this Blog – which to me, is a truly immersive, therapeutic, daily experience! Without the Life I have had, I may not have been the person that I am today – perfectly at peace with myself in my beautiful, bountiful, yet apparently imperfect, world!
Life is bizarre and inscrutable. If you can’t make sense of it, just go wherever Life is taking you!
Often, when you review the reasons why you did not get what you wanted, you will end up finding what is truly ordained for you. The path you choose may not always be available to you. But a closed door or a dead end will, always, often miraculously, open up a whole new path for you. You may take that road reluctantly to arrive at an unknown place, only to discover that you really, truly belong there!
This is counter-intuitive to the popular, world conditioning that we have all received. On the one hand, you are encouraged to set a Vision for yourself, have goals and diligently pursue them. And on the other, you are now being told that despite what you have planned, Life will take you on its own course! Well, it may seem incredible, but it is the way it is. It is so simple and easy to understand. You can only make a Life out of what happens to you __ irrespective of what you planned or wanted. That’s really how you learn to be happy despite the circumstances.
20 years ago, in 1996, after three successive disastrous employment stints, I presented myself in the office of a high-profile recruiter in Chennai. He subsequently built his company up well and sold it to a global recruitment firm. He then joined politics and was elected from a constituency in Chennai in the recent Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. But back then, the recruiter was a big name, and his firm was a much talked-about start-up. I had known him through my years as a business journalist. So, I sought his help in getting me a good, well-paying, purposeful corporate job. He spent three hours speaking with me and assured me of a quick turnaround. Post that meeting, over the next three months, I must have called him a few dozen times. E-mail was not so big then. So, I had to follow up only via phone. He neither answered my calls on his direct number nor did he call me back, although his secretary kept promising me he would. It was so strange and so frustrating. I remember agonizing then: at least he could tell me why he was not successful in pushing my case with employers; or, was he even trying?
Frustrated, and perhaps also driven by the fact that I had been ‘rejected’, I resolved that I should go on to be an employer. And not be an employee anymore. One fine day, in August 1996, I went ahead and set up a tiny consulting firm with my wife! We were successful financially in our early years. But by the end of our first decade in business, we were staring at a big, dark, black hole of accumulated losses and an unimaginable pile of debt. Eventually, as is public knowledge now (‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’; Westland) we went bankrupt and, as I write this, continue to be in that state.
Initially, I hated where we had ended up finding ourselves: presiding over the debris of a debt-laden, problem-ridden Firm. I used to hate that feeling__of guilt, ignominy, hopelessness, fear and resentment__ which would gnaw at me from within in each waking moment. But now, after all these years, when I look back, I find that without the rejection I faced in the job market, I may not have embraced entrepreneurship and without having failed at entrepreneurship, I may never have understood what Life is, what intelligent living is and understood what happiness is and what contentment is as I do now!
When I introspect, I am grateful for the experiences I have been through that have transformed me from being an angry, foul-mouthed, obsessive, possessive, egotist to being a simple, accepting, mindful voyager through Life. My learnings from the path that I did not choose, but which unfolded itself in front of me as I walked, have brought me to, I earnestly believe, my Life’s Purpose: to awaken people to happiness despite their circumstances! I am reminded of what John Bunyan, a 17th Century English writer and preacher, had to say: “Although I have been through all that I have, I do not regret the many hardships I met, because it was they who brought me to the place I wished to reach.”
So celebrate Life’s inscrutability. Don’t grieve, don’t mourn what you wanted and did not get. It is Life’s job, having created you, to take care of you. And your job is to live the Life that you have – fully, happily!