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Date : Jan 15 , 2019 | Opinion
Troubled by the dystopian realities of life around him, Srikanth Viswanathan traded in a successful career in banking for a life of purpose in the non-profit sector. Eight years on, the CEO of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy writes about that life-changing decision and how he continues to learn, grow and find purpose.
I grew up in a large village in Kerala which eventually became a town when I was in high school. I went to a small, well-run school with a large dose of quizzing and debating, including on hot political topics true to Kerala. But I did pretty much nothing in public interest after tenth grade. I was a terrible citizen for 14 years of my adult life, having only voted once in those years—that too when I was home recovering from chicken pox. I had volunteered only once, for a few hours.
Cut to 2010 when, after over a decade in the corporate sector, the exciting work in a multinational banking environment in Mumbai did not seem lucrative enough to compensate for the dystopian reality of horrifying inequalities in Mumbai. The best-case prospect of a board seat, an S Class Mercedes and a sea-facing apartment on Napean Sea Road 15 years down, came with the fear of irreversible moral regrets that might overwhelm me in my fifties.
That is when I started considering the idea of moving to a non-profit. It was not a love-at-first-sight kind of an experience; it was more like a slow courtship with the idea—true to the inherently hawkish, suspicious nature of an accountant. In fact, it was my wife who pointed me to a fund-raising job in Janaagraha through a placement portal.
By contrast, when I finally made the decision, it was a blindsided leap of faith, unencumbered by a housing loan, unabashed about not owning a house, but bravely supported by an indulgent wife who had a job. Ours was an arranged marriage, where my banking job was as much of a matchmaker as tamilmatrimony.com. So, my wife and I, in just over a year of marriage, shocked our families through this act of collusion.
The last seven-and-a-half years have been life-changing in retrospect. My wife and I have made unconventional choices for ourselves as a family and as individuals, many changes to our lifestyle and, more importantly, adopted a very different worldview. We will not know if we are right until the end of our lives. But we have conviction we were driven to it for the right reasons.
Looking back after an eventful seven-and-a-half years, there are seven lessons I continue to learn and apply that are helping me find purpose, happiness and growth.
1. I need to blur the lines between personal and professional
A “career” or a “job” in the development sector is, in my view, an oxymoron. The development sector is about a cause and a purpose. This necessarily means I should reorient myself from the language of “career,” “professionalism” and “work-life balance” which has been drilled into me in the corporate world, and instead view life holistically. This does not mean I neglect my responsibilities to my family (which I did for many years both in my corporate career and during my time in Janaagraha). It actually means the opposite.
Viewing life holistically means I understand the interconnectedness between my responsibilities and harmonise them without artificially splitting them into earning a living (work) and living (life). As I increasingly blur the lines between the personal and professional, my fulfilment is increasing and the world and life are making more sense to me.
2. I need a theory of change for myself
I need to evolve a theory of change for my own life even as I do the same for the programs I work on. For me, the ToC is the Google Maps of the development jungle. It lends meaning and purpose to the journey and serves as a powerful frame of self-introspection and self-motivation. The ToC also helps communicate my viewpoint and work better to people around me, including my family and friends. The theory of change is not cast in stone—it evolves at periodic intervals (though not too frequently), informed by new evidence that either reaffirms or dispels assumptions. The ToC gives me the wisdom to deal with ambiguity, the patience to wait for results, and the urgency to strive hard. Every day when I get to work and get back home, I reflect on why I do what I do and reaffirm to myself the theory of change.
3. I have a choice: fix the problem by fixing the system first, or fix the system by first fixing the problem
I made an early choice to invest my time in fixing the system and through that the problem and not vice versa. I find systems thinking to be transformative (wholesale change), catalytic (triggers several positive changes simultaneously) and personally enriching. Each of us needs to understand ourselves and our impulses and make this choice early in our development journeys: do I want to fix the system and through that the problem, or do I want to fix the problem and through that the system? The two are not mutually exclusive and will intersect sooner than later, but the approaches are very different and suit people with differing temperaments.
4. I need to nurture my passion, broaden my horizons
I need to continuously and consciously nurture my passion and broaden my horizons. The passion that drives us to transition from the corporate sector to the development sector is a gift that cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be nurtured with contemplation, reflection and day-to-day hard work. The passion is also fuelled by a broadening of my horizons as that enlarges the ambit of my cause. I need to understand the world around me and the views of people around me and relate them to the context of my own cause and work, in order to strengthen it further.
5. I need to communicate, engage and influence
I am learning to communicate the cause passionately and untiringly, to engage my stakeholders continuously, to nudge them to view the world through the lens of our theory of change and gauge its benefits. It is so easy to get lost in our desk, in our task lists, in our spreadsheets and emails that we forget that public change is communication, is engagement! There are so many nuances for me to learn, on the message, the medium, the mood, the frequency.
This is fundamentally different from the corporate sector, where the company is a principal that acts on its own behalf. A development sector organisation is an agent of change. It exists to change someone else or something else. So, in the development sector, the core of life is to undertake actions that will trigger someone else to do something that they aren’t doing right now, that will make the world better. And that someone else doesn’t “report” to me! In fact, my own team members who technically report to me, are not in this for the money or career growth but because of their commitment and passion. Therefore, with them too, I am continuously learning to communicate, engage and influence (and be influenced in equal measure) rather than delegate and manage.
6. I need to invest in the institution and not just the cause
I need to invest in Janaagraha as much or more than I invest in the cause. It is after all the institution that will eventually carry on the work. I should not think of investing in the institution as administrative work that takes time and effort away from the cause, but as important value-accretive work that builds a great institution that will carry on the work for a hundred years!
7. I need to practise “urgent patience”
Most of the challenges or problems that development sector organisations seek to solve are very complex. Many of them may not go away in our lifetimes. We need to be humble and patient with results even as we are urgent and untiring in our efforts. Remember that a large majority of our freedom fighters died before August 15, 1947. Lincoln, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Mandela didn’t live to see the ultimate goals of their life’s work accomplished.
Srikanth is Chief Executive Officer of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Srikanth joined Janaagraha in 2011 and prior to this role was head of Advocacy and Reforms. He has been an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India for 15 years, with professional work experience in banking and audit.
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