When I joined my first job, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) — a defence and security policy thinktank, based in New Delhi, India — I did so just as my M.Phil. supervisor was leaving the Institute and joining the University where he would guide me through to my dissertation. I was allotted his old room. He told me how proud he was that one of his students was going to be in the same office he had just vacated.
Now that I teach, and almost 20 years later, I can better appreciate his sense of pride.
He then told me two things that have stayed with me over the years.
#1: Always get more out of a job/ institution than the institution/ job gets out of you.
Many of us end up complaining and cribbing about how we are made to work long hours, or not paid enough, about difficult bosses and tough-to-handle colleagues. We don’t ever stop to think that all of these add up to a body of great experience that is an essential part of our professional journey. It’s a slice of humanity and its problems we will encounter anywhere we go.
Why not make the most of it and practice the skills that will be required to handle these, from an actionable point of view, once we are leading our own teams? Why not use the available resources like libraries and information systems — responsibly, of course — as well as the collective knowledge, expertise and experience of the organisation, to become better at what we do? Why not leave a team/ workplace/ system / process better than when we joined, as well as take some of that change with us, in return?
My advice? Get more out of every job, if not the most. Work on negotiation skills, adverse communication and difficult conversations. Work on your soft skills. Interpersonal relationships. In fact, I now teach and do workshops on all of these and more, sharing my experience and knowledge , curated after two decades in some tough and challenging work environments.
Tough people teach you tough lessons. Situations can be better managed with patience, diplomacy, tact and empathy. We learn all of these as we continue to scale new heights, pave new paths for ourselves and others.
#2: Don’t tie your star to someone else’s. You’ll rise fast enough, but the journey down will be at twice the speed.
This is something I am quite proud of, in fact. Mentors aside, not relying on “godfathers/ godmothers” in jobs has helped me be my own person. I learnt this a long time before “authenticity” became the buzzword it did. Being my own person. Developing my own style of functioning after learning from some of the best.
Now, being the boss’s “blue-eyed” girl/ boy is all very well, but it does put a target on your back. That’s not a problem in and of itself, till you start tying your rise through the ranks by over-relying on the beneficence of one person. Especially if you make a habit of doing that over and over again. Earning a reputation that goes with it, and precedes you, along the way.
That is not to say don’t seek or work with mentors and people who can help you progress and develop in your career and/ or facilitate your personal professional and/ or personal growth. Just don’t use it as the only way to get ahead in life.
Sometime or the other, reckoning with the reputations of others can boomerang. Badly damaging everything you have built, even if it is targeted at someone else’s misdeeds or missteps.
Then, a few years later, when I got married and started my second job, writing for the Hindustan Times, a relative of my ex-husband’s gave me another piece of invaluable advice.
#3: Always pick up two new skills from every job. At the very least.
For example, I learnt how to make news pages, first on Quark, the software we used for the newspapers in the 2000s, and then later a new magazine on InDesign — something the editors at the latter simply did not do. I learnt how to manage the backend of a website, how to envision and create a new one from scratch, to write and respond better to emails and improve my business communication.
I came to better understand how to manage time and travel, general professional etiquette, effective public engagement, stakeholder and project management and a hundred small things that all add up to professional evolution, and complementary personal gains.
Later, in 2019, after being severely and gravely ill for a few months, being bedridden and unable to sit up and write, I started a podcast — managing it from a single device my world had shrunk to — my iPhone. I downloaded an app, diligently typed short scripts and recorded them while lying in bed.
Creativity — and the will to learn — I have realised, is like flowing water: it will always find its way, even if it is via drips and drops through crevices and cracks.
During the pandemic, sans vaccination and anywhere to go, I started working on Canva. I got myself a Pro subscription, shelled out the relatively steep monthly amount, and went to work on it. I designed everything I could possibly use/ need and then some more, just for the sheer joy of creating — visiting cards, posters, podcast art, presentations, birthday messages and whatnot.
I put my heart and soul into each one — often getting over ambitious and making a mess out of it, but I didn't stop. I think I have got somewhat better at it. Or at least I hope I have, for the sake of all those who have had to visually suffer for my obsession!
As a result, something as simple as earning my 500+ designs badge on Canva a couple of months ago felt great.
My advice here, at the end, would be: don’t ever stop learning. The day you do, you stop growing. For me, it’s the day I will officially stop living.
So, here’s wishing you wonderful, new milestones and a career filled with cherished moments you can share with others, to make their journeys just a little easier.