It has been three years, but I will not forget those shoes. Dull grey in color, old and comfortable, a pair of Hush Puppies, that I hoped I would find on that shoe shelf outside this particular Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). If the shoes were outside, I knew he was inside, and that meant I could hope for a split chance to merely watch him from a distance, as he hovered over many tiny babies, and made his way to my little son’s incubator. I read his facial expression as he spoke about my baby to the junior doctor, and lip-read the instructions he gave the nurses, hoping I will find words of cure, words of hope, words to make my heart keep beating.
Those shoes belong to my baby’s neonatologist, and during the 45 days that my baby stayed in the NICU, this doctor was my interface to the powers of God, equipped with skills and experience that I did not have, that my baby, and many other premature babies needed.
He had learnt the hard stuff. The stuff I had skipped.
Last week, a first cousin stayed with us for a few days. He is in town to give talks at various Astrophysics institutes. He is a few months away from finishing his PhD in Astrophysics from Caltech. Caltech is probably one the best places on earth for this field. But that’s not as important as the person I’m describing. I’ve seen him through it all — building telescopes at the age of 11, spending his weekends at the IUCAA Astronomy Center in Pune, rejecting a socially prestigious engineering seat for a simple B.Sc. in Physics, later moving to IIT-Mumbai for his M.Sc., and finally to Caltech for his PhD. This boy started gazing at the stars very early, and even today the man in front of me is still the same boy — still studying something hard , still making sense of the stars, hoping to make a difference to the field of Physics. In campus recruiting, he is offered high-paying data scientist jobs, yet he prefers to stick with the stars, “Those guys don’t want me for Physics. I’ll finish my post-doc, and then figure it out”.
He wants to come back to India, he wants to take care of his grandparents, and he wants to be with the stars. He says he will find a way. He did not get an MBA so he does not know words such as “opportunity cost” or “risk analysis”.
He is busy with the hard stuff. The stuff I skipped.
On an ordinary Saturday evening, my family and I are watching the International Premier Tennis League on TV. In one the breaks between games, there’s an interview of a teenager from Pune, my hometown, who qualified for junior Wimbledon this year. My husband remarks, “Wow! That kid must have practiced 5 hours a day throughout his childhood. That’s hard stuff. I wish I had done that.”
My husband plays tennis on weekends. Once in a while the coach pairs him with one of the young kids, the ones being trained for a career in tennis. Those kids play 4 hours a day, 2 hours before school and 2 hours after school. We see their parents watching everyday, devoting their lives to a shared dream. The school makes special arrangements to ensure they don’t miss out on exams during tournaments. The coach has created a scholarship to fund all tennis related expenses for these hard-working kids. They’re engaged in what Geoff Colvin would call deliberate practice.
That’s hard stuff. So hard that it physically painful. Most of us would never attempt it. I skipped it.
Why am I mulling over these stories? Why do I feel spontaneous envy when I bump into the 60-year-old painter who lives on my floor, or the 70-year old scientist who loves talking about his projects? To me they have something that wealth or power or luck cannot bring — vibrancy until death. As I soak in the warm light that emerges from their cheery old eyes, I try to make sense of my past, and my future.
I had worked hard at the strict convent school I went to, and worked hard during engineering too, and yet after all the training in working hard, I chose a generalist degree for my post-graduation, an MBA. I know why I chose it then — a new experience, a great Ivy-League school, exposure to business, readiness for entrepreneurship, etc etc. But somehow an MBA took me further away from pursuing a hard learnt skill, a skill that feels real, a skill where there is no finish line, a skill that in later years gives meaning beyond career building.
Nowadays when I am asked for career advice, my first question is — “How long a career do you want? Are we talking 20 years or 60 years?”
It just may be a mid-life thing to wish for changing one little thing in your past. In such moments, I wish I had planned for a 60-year career, and got that hard skill, something I do with my hands, something that takes years to master. The longer, the better.
It’s only in mid-life that we finally realize, there was no need to hurry.