Friday, December 31, 2010

A parting look back, A hopeful peek ahead...

What do I say about the year that has been... I began the year, just like any other, with a precise list of goals (posted here). While I hit all of those that were not affected by my move across the world, my biggest learning and satisfaction, ironically, came from the disclaimer I wrote as a mere afterthought: "...these might well remain dreams. For despite all my meticulous planning, life has this queer way of creeping up and surprising the hell out of me sometimes." Life did dish out a few surprises, some not so pleasant. But to me, 2010 was a year that tested my conviction and tenacity on the professional front. I will not dwell on the details; it suffices to say that memories of many a (seemingly sinking) moment from this year will stay with me for a long time to come. Despite months and months of uncertainty and the troubling, unanswerable questions that prevailed, the way things turned out, I daresay it is a year to be remembered, cherished even!

What do I say about the year that is to be... First of all, it will be the year I lose my single status. There's going to be a wedding. Somehow, I don't dread it yet. But I'm sure there is some obsessive ranting in store for the next few months. I hate shopping, I hate summer, jewelry is not a favorite, neither are silk saris. Of course, there will be ranting! Looking at the bright side, this also means there's going to be a honeymoon! Well, well... more on that as things take shape. Now that takes care of half the year for us. The remaining half will hopefully be a deluge of sweat for marathon training...

In other musings, A has moved to India! Which can only mean travel, travel and some more travel. The travel blog will come to life again. However, once A moves to Bombay and our zillion impromptu jaunts take over our life, my running that has been chugging along pretty well, is bound to take a serious hit. So will my reading, and my friends and my various other occupations. Yes, A can have that effect on me *sheepish grin*. With the impending marriage, new jobs, new work goals et al, I've been thinking (obsessing obviously) about these things for months now. So I've designated 2011 as the year I figure out time management.

Time management is crucial to me for a few reasons. First, I believe I'm in the business of knowing- which means reading, thinking and learning. These things consume time and I want to create that time, somehow. Second, after a year and a half of fairly consistent running I can safely say running is close to my heart and I want to create the time to run, somehow. Third, A and I moved to India for reasons beyond career, chiefly our families. I want to create time for them, somehow. Then there is reading, writing, traveling and the whole laundry list. As you can see, I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I've even come up with a mathematical solution of sorts to manage my time. I will be back to haunt any remaining readers with the details in later posts. For now, the control freak prevails!

That concludes my sneak peek at the year ahead. Hopefully this blog will see a lot more action in 2011 too. On that cheery note, wish you a wonderful year ahead! Adios.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Combating Compromise: A reflection on business school and beyond

The big news is that I moved to India. The bigger news is that I got a job. And the biggest news is that I got what I wanted! So here's a celebratory reflective rant before I move to Bombay, begin work and get too busy...

Come September, another unsuspecting class of starry eyed, bushy tailed, high fliers will begin their much anticipated journey into Business School. I vividly remember the first half of 2007; an admission to Wharton and a US Visa under my belt, my world could not be more perfect. Life was all about farewells and shopping and a little well deserved idleness after a grueling application season. I had not an inkling of the treacherous recession that was lurking around the corner. I believed, rather naively in retrospect, that I was set to power down a straight line path to the career of my dreams. Those were glorious times!

However, for more than a year after graduation, I had to contend with an unsettling mix of a sense of achievement and a slightly nagging discontent. Until recently, I was steeped in an elusive search for that perfect job. The recession might be to blame for my unattractiveness as a fresh graduate in a shrinking Financial Services market. But given that I was caught in an impasse, I had time to ponder. And I did conclude that I could have done things a little differently while I was at Wharton. I could have tweaked my thought process a little and gotten a wee bit more out of my time at school. Hindsight grips my pen as I write about my lessons, about the questions that once crowded my mind and the now obvious answers.

Business school is all glamor from the outside. It is a chimera of infinite possibility; it even has a misleading aura of invincibility. Maybe it is a result of the highly selective nature of the admission process. Be it the GMAT or the 2500 words of descriptive essays or the other intangible admission criteria of US B-Schools, it is designed to skim only the very top of a highly competitive applicant pool. Hence my admission to Wharton ushered in a mild complacence that the ride ahead had to be smooth, a complacence that made me decide not to take up the pre-MBA internships that I had lined up. I chose to spend a month at home reading books instead. Who would want to work when you can wake up at noon and spend the rest of the day with Douglas Adams and F.R.I.E.N.D.S?

Surrounded by immensely successful people from astoundingly diverse backgrounds, the first few months of business school can be humbling, even intimidating at times. The popular career choices and the “cool” jobs invitingly dangle in front of you. The allure is irresistible. The pressure to conform is high. Despite being amongst the youngest students in my class and never having encountered so much choice at once, I held my own pretty well. The first semester passed by in a whirr of academic rigor, heavy networking with recruiters, extracurricular pursuits, parties and socializing.

Before I knew it recruiting season was underway and I was being interviewed for summer internships. I’ve always believed that regardless of the outcome, true satisfaction lies in walking out of a test feeling that you could not have been better prepared. And that is the very satisfaction with which I walked out of each of my interviews. But by then the country was already spiraling into recession. And I walked into a reality where firms had cut their internship offers to half the usual number. When you do the math, there were a larger number of students with relevant backgrounds than the number of available jobs. I, a career switcher, simply didn’t measure up. So there I was, with no offer and a little bewildered at the end of the formal campus interview period.

It seemed earth shattering. It made me question my abilities and my methods. I wondered if I was really as competitive as I thought I was. I questioned if I went to B-school a few years too early. Everything that I could have done came rushing to me like an epiphany. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I preempt it? I could have done the pre-MBA internship and been less of a career switcher. Or maybe I should have taken up some freelance projects during school to add relevance to my background. Why was I not proactive enough to reach out to Wharton alumni early? Why did I wait for things to be handed to me? Did I delude myself that there was an easy way? As I said earlier, the misleading aura of invincibility served to cloud all cautionary instincts. And I could not forgive my complete lack of foresight and my irrationally casual approach to a future I claimed really mattered to me.

The rampant self doubt and contempt was finite after all. For a dream is a dream. And you simply cannot allow past mistakes and an economic recession to rampage through it. For four long months I spent every waking minute on my job search. I taught myself new skills I could talk about in interviews. During the semester I did unpaid freelance work, in return for a line on my resume. I called every good friend of mine and asked for help with no hesitation whatsoever. I cold called anyone I thought could help me. I was looking for a Finance job in a shrinking market. Irrational, I know! I guess I just played the numbers game. I figured that if I knock on a hundred doors one was bound to open eventually. And it did. I got a buy-side internship in India that was way better than anything I had hoped for. Yes, through a cold call!

My real triumph at that time was in admitting that I was partly responsible for my less than ideal situation. The triumph lay in still mustering the strength to stay away from the path of compromise and continuing to put in effort towards what had become a more difficult dream. The reward really was a newfound courage, patience and maturity that enabled me to go on a sinfully fun trip to Peru with no internship in hand. And on a much envied cross country road trip across the US in the face of my chillingly large loan and the bleakest of job prospects. Maybe it dawned on that I won’t stay 25 forever…

This begs the question “What about Plan B?” I realized that the real Plan B, at least for me, was all the unconventional and proactive measures that could make Plan A work. Not everyone has their entire career figured out while at school. But everyone has immediate aspirations, which in bad economic times may seem unattainable. You can use the time at b-school to test for yourself if conviction can conquer the need to compromise, if the extra mile is better than diversion. Recession or boom, I feel that this is my most important lesson, as valuable to me as my Wharton diploma.

Business school seldom prepares one for failure, or for uncertainties. In fact, for the risk averse, it is a rather expensive insurance against uncertainty. In a way, I’m glad that I was faced with a recession of such monstrous proportion at the beginning of my career. Because I learned how to deal with it when my opportunity cost of the lesson was negligible. I owe it to my attitude for the tenacity to stick to my dreams and spend a year after graduation doing relevant things that got me the job I wanted as soon as the market improved. I owe it to my idealism for helping me to stick to my claim that I am indifferent to location as long as I get the career I want. Most importantly, I owe it to all the the amazing
friends and family I'm blessed with, without whose helping hand, sympathetic ear and precious time I could never have survived what has doubtlessly been the most testing period of my life.

So here I am, ever the optimist, sauntering once again on a path to the career of my dreams. Here I am, about to start my new job, glad that my world is smiling again…

Monday, February 15, 2010

I am a Label Reader!

Grocery shopping takes me a full hour longer than it should. I more often than not return snacks to their shelves before they can find their way to my cart. I deeply ponder over the different variations of a product before picking one. Take bread for instance- there's white, wheat, Italian, potato, rye, whole grain, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel and the list is endless. It's not all the choice that has me lingering in those aisles minute after confused minute. It's the labels people!

The big friendly "Fat Free" or "Low Fat" that jumps out to greet me is not sufficient for me. Even the simple calorie count will not do. I have to labor over the protein and the potassium, the vitamins and the sodium, carbs, saturated fat, MSG, high fructose corn syrup... I draw mental spreadsheets to compare the options before I "Oh so callously" toss one into my shopping cart, gleeful at having pandered to my OCD. The thirty three different options available for every product only make my mind sharper!

In high school, I used to be your average Indian kid who sat through the last hour of class dreaming about the samosa or the ice cream waiting for me. In fact, the store down the road from school might have stayed afloat just because of my friends and me. Once I went to college however, I stopped playing as much, but didn't stop eating as much. Thanks to my genes, all the junk somehow didn't make its way to my midsection. Then I moved out of home for work and restaurants became my home away from home. One fine day, probably on my way out to lunch, I tried to zip up a pair of jeans from my college days. The pizzas, the dosas and the loads of chaat I had packed in over the months would not fit in. My jeans creaked! That was it. I freaked out! And started cooking for myself. That is when my obsession with nutrition and fitness started and has stuck with me through the years.

Don't mistake me for one of those crazy dieting chicks. I'm eating almost all the time. I even eat junk when I crave it. Like today, I was extremely tempted to grab a bag of cheese curls that tantalized me from the shelf. But one glance at the label, I threw it back in alarm. 170 calories, 120 from fat. I could hear my waistline threatening to become unrecognizable. I ran.

Later in the car, the benefits of my dorky love for nutrition data and all the food literature I've read over the years slowly dawned on me. It gives me the resistance to not give in to the delicious pictures of crinkle cut potato chips floating lightly in the air, or the heavenly cheese oozing out of a slab of lasagne. I've lived borderline sugar free (no substitutes, just no sugar) for the good part of a decade, save the occasional ice cream or dessert. I become ecstatic over tofu and lentils, less for the taste and more for the protein . It has made me a purist of sorts when it comes to fresh food. I grind my own ginger and garlic, although I battle later with soap and scrubber to get the smell off my fingernails. Store-bought pasta sauce is a big no-no for me. Whole grain over processed food any day. I grew up vegetarian and I still am. I give up all those wonderful scrumptious choices at restaurants despite being able to stomach meat and fish. I can eat just a salad or a soup for dinner and not ask "When's the food coming?". At the end of the day, it is this OCD with nutrition that keeps me from undoing all my physical exercise, say, with a stack of Pringles or a warm brownie...

You could call me too technical and geeky, like many of my friends and family do. But you know you've reaped the rewards when you don't hyperventilate and rush to enroll in a gym when your high school reunion looks you in the eye and smiles its smug smile!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And the plot thickens...

I had not met a worse commitment-phobe than myself. Well, not until I met A. Now we are both vying for the grand blue ribbon. There was a time when we encountered many situations where people inevitably assumed we were a couple. We usually laughed it off, both in public and between us.

We painstakingly resisted even the possibility. We gave a lot of platonic names to “us”. We inched slowly from friends to best friends to a little more than friends. “Do we have to name everything?” We decided we didn’t, or rather couldn’t.

Our reasoning was laughably predictable…

A: We’re having too much fun.
K: We don’t want to break up, do we?
A: Yeah, what we have is too precious to mess up. I want you in my life.
K: I’m an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ person you know.
A: Me too. We both suck at long distance.
K: We are both too whimsical.
A: And selfish.
K: And whimsical. Oops! Did I already say that?

Meanwhile we went out on trips, carefully skirting around romance inducing circumstances, if any. We avoided silences and knowing glances. We kept our conversations meticulously focused on movies, travel, books, food, the economy, photography and other non-ominous topics. We also told ourselves we fought because we were spending too much time together. We declared with true conviction that we’ll be “alright” once we put 4000 miles between us. We were both bound to get busy soon. We thought we will “get a life”.

Some friends laughed at us. Some had advice to give. Some were surprised. Some others gave up. Even our parents shook their head wisely. “Kids, these days!” they dismissed us.

While we were lauding ourselves for our self awareness and rational decision making, the imperceptible breeze of change lulled our senses. Movies became about holding hands despite rendering it impossible to eat pop corn comfortably. The chilly waterfront called for a warm hug instead of a snug jacket. Meeting became an opportunity to spend time together rather than going someplace new. “45 minutes of bumper to bumper torture. I’m too lazy” became “Oh come on! It’s just a 20 minute drive. I’ll be there.” When we lived on different coasts, we discovered that our heretofore unnamed relationship transcended distances and time zones. Silences became easy. Trust became implicit. Dreams of togetherness bloomed. Desire flourished. I guess somewhere between all the fun we were having and the separation we once dreaded and later endured, we went from enjoying each other’s company to intimate to inseparable.

Marriage, to me, always signified an implicit loss of freedom, unpredictable, sometimes even unwilling, compromises and a complex entanglement of two families. Marriage, I believed, enjoyed an unreasonable importance bestowed by an irrational society. I cannot honestly claim that my views have changed. But I am rather glad, even moved, when I say that, with A, I have found the courage to commit, I have the heart to compromise. Against all odds, I have serendipitously stumbled upon the perfect person to share my life with.

I write this, not as a tale of melting romance that makes you weak in the knees. This is not about mawkish sentimentality or adolescent infatuation. This is simply a celebration of our wondrous journey from an innocent blog post that threw us together to this joyous moment where we look ahead at our life together.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

This and that

Wow! It's been a month since my last post. Time does fly. And I hate to see this blog die. Now that rhymed, in a really lame way though. I don't have much in the way of life updates. It suffices to say 2010 has not disappointed me so far! Neither am I capable of writing anything remotely funny. So I suspect this will end up being another one of those reflective rants that reign this blog.

Of late, I've come to realize how indispensable progress is to me. My non-academic life before Wharton was spent entirely in the pursuit of a b-school admission, doing well at work and reading. I had such little time for anything else, that the visit to the gym and time with friends felt well-earned. And I actually enjoyed my sleep-deprived, megalomaniacal zeal. The two years at school made me shift gears to an even more maddening pace. I loved that too! What I really savored all those years was the constant presence of goals and the unmistakable progress from each day to the next. I know I'm beginning to sound like a grand old lady here, so moving on...

Quite naturally, in the days following my graduation I found myself struggling without short term goals to focus on. My internships and job search were not enough to keep me a 100% mentally engaged. I spent a lot of time reading, but I could not attach goals to a hobby. It felt like I was cheating somehow. One fine day, I discovered running. Initially I used it mainly as a reason to get out of the house. Soon I felt what I recognized as the runner's high. Voila! I'd found a new obsession to plan, practice and analyze on spreadsheets. I was hooked!

Six months later, I own a great pair of running shoes, technical apparel for the cold, hydration gear, iPhone apps to track my pace and mileage, subscription to Runner's World (one of the most interesting magazines I've ever read). I run 25 miles or so every week. I spend hours analyzing the run, figuring out the route to run on the next day and checking the weather to make sure I can run outside. I thoroughly enjoy wheezing my way back home after my 8 mile "long runs" and my hour long speed workouts. I get blown away by veteran runners' workouts on and wake up every day wanting to run faster and longer. Most of all I love being able to better my own best. Although I'm still very slow, I think I will soon begin to participate in races for the fun of it. I even have a couple of friends who've recently taken to the sport, thanks to my regular Facebook updates. Alright, that's it about running, before you close this blog in disgust.

I hate to say this. But the truth is, save the occasional weekend travel which I urge you to read about here, life has been humming along as uneventfully as ever. Maybe this is a case of the famed winter blues. Maybe I'm just a pathetic wallowing mess if you take away the endorphins. Maybe it is sleep finally creeping in at 3:15am! It is only wise to give in...

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Desultory dreams for 2010

It's 12.36am. Too early to sleep. Nothing half decent on TV, as usual. I can't read more than a sentence, thanks to a clogged nose and watery eyes. What better pastime than dreaming up some awesome plans for the shiny new year that lies ahead?!

Let's start with running. I have grand running goals this year. I aim to run 1300-1500 miles. I'm already 25 miles behind, thanks to aforementioned nose and eyes. I want to run the Seattle half marathon in June and the San Francisco half marathon in July. If not both, at least one of them. And I want to run a full marathon before winter. All this if and when I get past this cold attack and manage to begin running this year. Moving on to fitness, I've lost 10 pounds since I started running. I guess I could lose 4 or 5 more pounds before I begin to look like an emaciated goat. But I'm more keen on building some muscle strength and toning up, which will also help increase my running speed. Not to mention all the avant-garde attires my mom keeps suggesting I wear for my wedding and its hundred related events. When that will happen seems totally irrelevant to these conversations I have with her! I'm not complaining. Hell, No!

Now that we've done away with the vanity-induced goals, let's talk about reading. My reading suffered for two long years during business school, save the winter breaks when I tried to make up for an entire year of literary sloth. It's getting back on track, but with such little momentum that my reading list threatens to require more than a lifetime to get through. So a minimum of 2-3 books a month is in order. I also want to read more non-fiction this year, mainly economics. Chide me if the "Buried in..." part of the sidebar on this blog remains unchanged for too long, will you?

Travel! I've visited at least one city/tourist attraction in 25 of the 50 states in the US. I want to visit the remaining half in the next 2-3 years if I end up living here. I guess Alaska, Oregon and Seattle are definitely on the cards for 2010. So is a trip to Europe. I'm sure that's not all, but let's leave some room for impulse travel, which really is the norm.

On to newer unexplored territories. I've postponed investing in the stock market for years now because of my b-school plans. My investment prowess remains stunted at Indian mutual funds that offer a tax shield, that too only the ones that were doing well in 2006. There's a lot to learn on the investing front. I guess I will take the plunge sometime in the second half of 2010, after I've taught myself a few things about the markets and their inefficiencies. Any market gurus reading this blog? Maybe you could give me some tips?

Before you write me off as an idler who has no professional aspirations, let me assure you, I do have many of those. But they are no fun to talk about really. So let's just leave them out of this space, shall we?

"Hmmm lofty...", you say. I hear you. These might remain dreams. I say this not as a disclaimer so that I can chicken out of my plans later. More so because, despite all my meticulous planning, life has this queer way of creeping up and surprising the hell out of me sometimes. But what the heck, might as well dream big while I'm at it, right?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Cheery Goodbye to 2009!

Happy New Year everyone! Hope 2o10 holds wonderful things in store for you...

For the past few days the internet has been inundated with New Year wishes. And I could not help noticing a general theme that pretty much everyone, myself included, cannot wait to be done with 2009. Usually we wish people a "great" year ahead. But I find us wishing everyone a "better" year. This got me thinking: Was 2009 really so bad that I want to forget it so quickly? I believe that there are always silver linings. This post is an attempt to glean those silver linings and leave the year behind on a positive note.

I'm tempted to summarily dismiss 2009 as a year of uncertainties and disappointments. But that would be uncharacteristic of an optimist. To me 2009 was a year of surprises-few good ones, few bad ones. I like to look at these surprises as nothing beyond tests of my ability to adapt to situations out of my control and emerge from them still smiling. They were tests of persistence, of hardiness, even faith sometimes. I do not have a way to measure my performance. I do not even know what qualifies as success. All I can say is, the year's over and here I am, still smiling.

I grew up a lot in 2009. We are talking about a quantum leap here, coming from someone who had the maturity level (and many of the problems) of a sixteen-year-old. I've always had ambitions, now I know how to persist when things don't come easy. I've always had plans, now I know how to make new ones when the old ones fall apart. For the first time ever, I know my priorities. I recognize and methodically work on my limitations. Above all, I've learned how to live in the present, something I never believed I could.

This account will probably sound vague and irrelevant to anyone who's reading this. But the events and details are only incidental. This post is a retrospective nutshell of the tremendous transformation a single year has effected. And I suspect I will be able to draw strength from it every time I come back to read it.

So fare thee well 2009. Again, Happy New Year to you!