Solo travel, Enlightenment Epiphanies and Some Leadership Lessons
No transcendence to speak of.
I turned 45 last month, and I celebrated it by myself with a glass of scotch in the remotest part of India — Leh.
I know, I know what you must be thinking — how does one really find scotch in Leh? Well, that’s a story for another day.
And, before you conjure up images of me drowning in scotch and being sad, lonely, or depressed on my birthday and thinking that age got to me — stop. It wasn’t any of that. Okay, maybe, a little.
The thing is that I was sold on the idea of solo travel being a catalyst to spiritual enlightenment. The one that says God mystically appears only when you travel alone to an exotic destination. Understandably, for this reason,I wanted to mark this milestone by meeting my real self, uncover my elusive passion, discover the mystic wisdom of this cosmos, and undergo a magical transformation.
None of that ever happened.
And reflecting back, I understand why. All the advice about traveling alone overlooks the fact that we are prisoners of our mind. When I travelled to a different place, it was a mere change in the foreground for my insipid infinite mental loop in the background. I was in a constant mind numbing chatter with myself about the mundane, and the problems that I had been grappling with back home.
“Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels. What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you?
It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you”
So if the mind is always drowning in the mundane, burdened with ordinary, then how can the extraordinary magical transformation happen?
Instead, what does happen are flashes of wisdom. Epiphanies. Because looks like, epiphanies have their own mysterious ways to come into our consciousness, and appear when we least expect them.
My epiphanies came in during precious moments of solitude when my inner chatter subsided and I took on a more reflective view of the world. It was then that I got a different perspective on things that I had been grappling with since quite some time.
Most of these concerns belong to daily life — the ordinary world of my organization, my colleagues, the leadership paradoxes, and many others. And the best part is the realization that our work and our lives are so closely knitted together that one could easily derive inspiration from literally anything.
Everything looks in harmony from afar
My first night in Ladakh was at Uleytokpo, an idyllic village nestled in the Ladakh valley. It was also the perfect spot to get acclimatized to the sudden change in height that came about from the airplane ride bringing me from the plains at sea level to 12,000 feet within an hour.
I had a beautiful cottage overlooking the muddy Indus river. The river looked so enchanting that I wanted to be a part of it, forever. I felt her calm waters calling out my name in a sweet melody, inviting me to sit by its bank, and have a quiet conversation with her. In peace.
I got seduced into thinking that I might have my own Vivekananda moment there, and took a short hike to it. Digressing, for the first time visitors at rarified oxygen level — no matter who’s calling, never ever go for a hike. No matter how easy it looks. It would leave you breathless, and gasping for air.
Little did I know that the end of the hike had a surprise waiting for me.
The calm and peaceful melody turned into a noisy, turbulent symphony as I approached the banks. I hadn’t been able to hear its full force from afar. The water was gushing at a breakneck speed like it was going to miss the last train home.
Same water. Same flow. Same river. But it turned out to be a completely different experience- a mere change of perspective, in terms of distance.
I felt that’s how it is for CEOs or leaders of any organization. The hierarchies, and the distance from ground realities lull them into a false sense of calm. They only catch a glimpse of a big splash, or observe the normal flow of activities, but not the underlying turbulence. No wonder the CEOs are generally the last ones to hear about all the issues.
Thus, it’s imperative that they interact, and mingle with the real soldiers marching the company forward.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in minutiae
On the 5th day of my travel, I was sitting by the Pangong lake, praying for dark clouds to drift away, and for the Sun to bathe the sky with its warmth. The sun rays, and clear blue skies bring out the best of the lake. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
But I observed a not-so-uncommon phenomenon. I saw people flocking to the shores of the lake, and then after a cursory glance at the beauty of the lake, they would begin to hunt for a perfect spot for clicking selfies.
Yes, they never turned around to see the color of the lake, or be in the moment. Merely capture it.
How I wish if only they had turned around, and seen the act of creation at its best.
And that made me question- was the act of capturing more important than experiencing it? I understand that capturing a moment gives us a lifetime opportunity to relive it. The above pictures are a proof of it.And I’m not against it. I’m trying to highlight the imbalance between the two. Because without experience, there is no emotion. Without the emotion, the captured pictured will remain impersonal and devoid of feelings.
It’s the same way with the leaders — sometimes, we get wrapped up in the busyness of capturing a metric or a goal that we miss experiencing the magic that unfolds everyday in front of us as those goals eventually begin to take shape. We feel that capturing the goal is an end in itself as if our success is defined only in achieving it. Whereas the real beauty lies all around it — in being grateful for the journey, for all those who have helped us reach there, and all that we have successfully created together.
It’s not always about ‘what’s next’
There is a famous saying about men — We aren’t interested in what’s on TV, we are interested in what else is on TV. We are constantly flipping channels to see what else could be worth watching.
I more or less went through a similar emotion in the beginning of the trip.
I was sitting at the footstep of a 106 ft buddha in Diskit, one of the most breathtaking places, and I observed my mind racing towards other destination points I still had to cover. More or less, just like those people who only wanted to capture the beautiful moments, I merely wanted to capture all the tourist spots.
I had to train my mind to be in the moment, and soak in the beauty of what was around me rather than fretting my destination list.
And I realized that it stands true in our work too. While we chase to reach the ‘next’, many times we miss the wonder in the ‘now’. The chase puts such blinders on us that one could be sitting at a magical spot, and be absolutely unaware about it. Only to go to another spot to realize what a mistake one has done.
We are somehow wired to keep chasing — something, anything. It seems to be the only barometer for growth. For terming ‘success’ (I visited 10 places vs 2 places).
And this relentless pursuit is even more ingrained in leaders, understandably so. We rarely allow ourselves the luxury to soak-in the moment. To feel happy, maybe contended in where we are right now. What a dis-service we do to ourselves, to the ‘now,’ that we worked so hard to achieve.
Your accomplishments don’t matter. What matters is who you are.
On the 6th day of the trip, I went to the quaint village of Turtuk, very close to the India-Pakistan border. I was taking a tour of the village when someone asked me what I do for a living.
Instinctively, I replied sharing my title rather than what I do. I said I’m the CEO of a tech. company, which left the person dumbfounded as they didn’t know what a CEO is.
He ended up asking me what that acronym means, and I ended up replying with tongue in cheek, Chief Email Officer. Let’s face it, that’s what I end up doing the entire day.
I did explain what I do for a living but it made me realize how insignificant my title, and other accomplishments are in the grand scheme of things.
Traveling alone to an unknown, one of the remotest parts of the world, is a big lesson in humility. It strips you off your accomplishments.
The place treats you the same whether you are a professional or not, accomplished or not, celebrity or an average Joe, illiterate or an IITian. It neither treats you with respect nor indifference.
It treats you as you.
It only speaks to you, not your accomplishments or failures. And that could be unsettling at first. Maybe, scary for some. Or, liberating for others.
It brings you down to the ground zero really fast. The only thing which gets you through this experience is the core of who you really are. The people you meet only want to interact with the real you.
The same applies at work. I feel we get wrapped up in successes or fancy titles, and forget that people want to work with people they like. We get a false sense of respect from our fancy titles but life long relationships aren’t built on the bedrock of hierarchies but on kindness, care, and warmth.
I had a memorable trip. But don’t let the romance of my words fool you into thinking that it was a smooth sail. Well, the trip was, but the prep to it wasn’t.
For the longest time I couldn’t decide if I should really embark on a solo trip. I agonized about my ability to be ‘alone’. I was assailed with doubts — what if I was consumed with loneliness? What if I felt so miserable that I would want to turn right back and head home? Was it wise to put so much time and effort only to feel wretched in the end?
But, none of that happened.
Because by being alone, I discovered that loneliness is nothing more than a social construct. One needs to be around people to feel lonely.
We feel lonely in relationships where we aren’t understood, when the reality of the relationship doesn’t match with our expectations from it.
When you are alone, well, you indeed are lonely but you don’t feel that specific gloomy kind of lonely emotion. It is a solitude that allows you to be in touch with who you are. Sans the masks. Sans the drama. Stark and authentic- just like those mountains.
I write a lot about my experience of being a founder, and CEO of Quovantis, a design led product engineering services company.
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