Aspire While Being Content

This is a speech I delivered in my Toastmasters a while back, pretending the audience to be my fellow alumni and students from my alma mater.

In 1978, a family of three arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with 700 dollars to their names, and all their possessions in two suitcases. They knew one woman in the city, the one friend they had made in India when she was passing through and needed a place to rest in-between flights.  Now they were relying on her to put them up for a night or two while they found housing. You could say they were naïve, you could call them foolhardy, but they had aspirations.  The man was going to do his higher studies, and the woman and the one-and-a-half-year-old daughter tagged along.

That family is my family. I draw upon my experience to say how you can manage your careers, and work towards your goals, while striving for a balance between aspirations and contentment so critical to a happy life.  I want you to take away the message that aspirations and contentment can coexist and what you do today – your action today is all that matters.

Growing up, I had a romanticized view of life in the western world. I aspired to travel the thousands of miles, away from everything I had known, and make my home in the USA. When we started life in Pittsburgh, we had no clue what we were in for.  My husband started his Ph.D. program in Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious Computer Science department.  But there was no graduate housing available. We didn’t know that finding housing would be tough when you have a child.  We were incredulous that tenants with pets were allowed, but not cute cuddly babies! Eventually, we got over that hurdle. On the positive side, good food, especially if you are vegetarians, was highly affordable even on a graduate student’s stipend, especially when you have good cooking skills. While it was tough to manage the house with a tight budget, and the culture was different, I was focused on living that moment to the fullest, enjoying everything it had to give, learning and absorbing my surroundings, and planning my actions for what I wanted to do in the future. I was grateful and content that I had the time to do that while spending time with my daughter.

How many of you have heard that Hinduism advocates fatalism?  That Hindus believe our destiny is pre-determined? Italians have something similar. Que Sera Sera. Doris Day sang a famous song with this theme. Contrary to popular belief, Hinduism does not advocate fatalism. What it says is that our present fate is the result of past actions, and our future is the result of what we do today. You can be in control of what you do today, and make your aspirations come true in the future.

In Pittsburgh, I was contended in my life during those years but did not forget that I wanted to make something of the education I had received back in India. I bided my time until my daughter turned three and was able to enroll in a preschool.  I wrote the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and got admission to Carnegie Mellon’s business school.  Going back to school after many years was a challenge. I was the oldest in the class, and my life was very different from other students because I had a child, and she was my priority. Making her a Wonder woman costume so she can go trick or treating on Halloween was a priority while my classmates went bar hopping. I had aspirations, but I was contented to be a mother and didn’t long for typical student life.

Coming to the USA from India was a big transition. Fast forward six years, moving to the bay area and finding a job was a minor one, especially now that we could afford a living above the poverty line!  

Let’s talk about career management. When I look back upon my first job, which lasted sixteen years, I do not remember a single performance review where I questioned the salary raise I received. My aspirations during those years were about taking on more responsibility, guiding a team to do their best, and achieving customer satisfaction.  I truly believed that if I focused on these, monetary rewards would take care of themselves.   I believe I chose my aspirations well. I had contentment.   I focused on the moment – to meet the expectations of those around me, and let the actions of the present decide what the future might bring.

Let’s talk about entrepreneurship.  Most startups in the valley start ventures with the goal of becoming the next Google or Facebook and having an exit that could make them millionaires if not billionaires. The sad reality is that most startups actually fail.  When I agreed to be part of the founding team on our startup, I made it very clear to my co-founders that my aspirations were not about this wonderful exit that could bring me millions, but that I would focus on growing a company that provided livelihood to many and accomplished something useful.  I feel proud to have achieved that.

Let me conclude with an old Sanskrit proverb:  “Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow but a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day.

What are you doing today? What actions will you take to achieve your aspirations?

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