What the heck do I do with my life? It's a common question that many people find themselves asking at some point in their career, and Ravi Venkatesan, the Chairman of The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP), UNICEF’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation, and Founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME) - has run into it many times himself, either on his own behalf, or because others have asked for his advice.
So, he wrote a book with that very same title, to help people organise their thoughts around this question of identity and choices. Drawing on decades of experience in highly respected multinational companies around the world, he put together advice that will, in his words, "provoke people, get them to start thinking about these issues, get them to be intentional in their choices."
Here are some excerpts of a conversation between Ravi and Ester Martinez, CEO of People Matters, about the book: “What the Heck Do I Do with My Life? How To Flourish in Our Turbulent Times”.
What drove you to write this book? What was the intent you wanted to achieve?
This is a question that I have struggled with personally. Every decade this question seems to pop up unfailingly and the answer changes as you move from your 20s to 50s. And more and more people are struggling with the same question. It's not surprising because we're in a period of extraordinary change. And extraordinary change of course brings extraordinary possibilities and opportunities, but also difficult choices, and there aren't very good markers to help guide people in making these choices.
How do we define success and control our happiness?
There's often a tendency to conflate success with happiness. Without being intentional about it, you start like a hamster on a wheel, pedaling harder and harder to get the reward. And that works fine up to a point, and then one day you realise: “Man, I'm pedaling really hard. And I'm not feeling any joy.”
This syndrome of the hamster on the wheel is called the hedonic treadmill. It's common to a lot of high achievers, ambitious people of the sorts who are tuning into this conversation. You have to get off that treadmill and start searching for your own internal understanding of what is success.
Happiness is a very elusive thing. And it's elusive because it is not real. It's manufactured by the mind and you can see that by looking at people who have nothing, and they're still joyous, versus somebody else who has everything, and they're miserable. When you look at these extremes, you realise that what you have in your life makes very little difference to whether you're happy or not. It's actually a choice. And you have to train the mind to make this choice.
What do meta skills have to do with figuring out our lives?
The world is changing. Fast. And the skill requirements are evolving quickly. So if I'm not learning new things, I'm going to get left behind. But the question then becomes, what do I learn? A master's programme in analytics? Some new programming language? If it's interesting, you should. There's no downside to these things. But these are very shallow questions in a certain way. They are about technical skills that will help you in the near future. But the problem is, jobs are being invented every day.
So I started looking at what skills are more fundamental, in the sense that 50 years from now it's still going to be incredibly important and useful. I call these meta skills. And one of those is something called learning agility, which is actually learning adaptive skills. You need to be able to figure out and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in your life. And you can't learn this in a classroom. You can't learn this online. The only way to do it is experiential.
What are the entrepreneurial traits that will help us do well in the 21st century?
Think about what an entrepreneur does. They recognise opportunity, they see something, and they decide to do something about it. Being able to observe opportunities all around you and choosing to act on them is one part of it. Another one is resourcefulness. Look at any business that starts with almost no resources, just a dream. And somehow the entrepreneur bootstraps their way to success. That is an incredibly valuable skill for all of us. The third part is problem solving. Building a business every day, you will have encountered at least 10s of problems, small ones, big ones, and you have to find a way to resolve them and you have to enjoy solving these problems. And so you need tenacity, not giving up. There's no such thing as failure except quitting. Quitting is the only failure. You if you have a setback, you just get up and keep trying or you pivot to some new direction.