Life Hacks

Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale
To: thegoodlife@livemint.com
Cc: shoba@shobanarayan.com

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement

patrick-kFpC--621x414@LiveMint

A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

7 comments

  1. Hi Vishesh, glad to see you are actively reading and collaborating here. Now, did you see what I just did? Ground rule # 4. (See Ground Rules here.) *chuckle* Now Vishesh before you punch back, just sit back and reflect if your point and post “registered” or not??

    OK to reply to your points … I guess it’s true that many Indian authors are guilty of “India is best” mentality, and I can see how this post might suggest that about Shoba, but if you read her other work trust me you’ll discover a whole lot more. Don’t judge someone by one line or one post.

    OK you don’t think Pichette’s note was an apology, but that was not Shoba’s point. Her point was, “don’t crib about balance later in life, pay attention to the smaller things (like going to the corner store)”.

    Finally, anyone gets touchy when you (knowingly/unknowingly) talk about their personal life. (You’ve admitted to your minivan search, so then you are entitled to comment only if you’ve taken a “balance” step like climbing Kilimanjaro, right?) Point is, this is a coffee shop (GR #5, 6). Let’s just enjoy the coffee and leave aunties and uncles and husbands and wives out of it, shall we?

    Chill, people!

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  2. Huh? I said “probably your life not Pichette’s” because you mentioned somewhere on this blog that one of the compromises you made was to stay home (and not take a journalist/beat reporter career) so your spouse could travel etc. This seemed a relevant point is why I said it, not to get personal. I didn’t mean to offend you. Sorry.

    My point about Japan/Scandinavia was not their refinement or design. It was that those societies also have strong family ties. Indian society is not the only one with strong/deep family ties. This was the one thing I hoped to clarify, many Indian authors somehow feel that only Indian society is family-oriented, strong family ties etc, and I wanted to point out that there are many other cultures as old (or older) than Indian culture, which have strong family ties.

    FYI Pichette is very much a private person. He worked at Google (like all the thousand others) and his piece was a personal note which was shared publicly probably with his permission, however it does not make him a public figure. But he is not an official spokesperson for Google or for family balance. CEOs and presidents and senators and board members (which Pichette was not) are public figures, the others are ordinary private citizens who worked at a firm. (Yeah I get the “in the journalistic sense”, but even so it does not apply.)

    You shot yourself in the foot Shoba with that last sentence. I would hope that as a journalist your views (and criticism) are not influenced by the author (whether your uncle or mine) of the piece you critique.

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  3. Hey Shoba – Great piece and set me thinking.

    Why do we need to compartmentalise our life into work / family / travel / adventure / and i could just go on.. why can’t it be a seamless 24 hrs in a day which we spend doing what we enjoy doing whether it is climbing mountains or punching away emails on our smart phones..

    Pichette has coined a great new buzzword FWIO – Fraternity of Worldwide Insecure Over-achievers – to me it is this insecurity of an over achiever that makes us keep focusing on what has made us the achiever in the first place. Our society (globally Vishesh – not just India) does not applaud someone who balances time between work and family but it certainly does recognise the retiring CFO of Google..

    Only if we could celebrate all things in our lives will be able to break these compartments – and if anyone finds out how.. do tell me as well… 🙂

    And oh on Vishesh’s comment.. i feel you have succumbed to the same ‘frog in the well’ syndrome when you say “If Pichette’s piece inspires one Indian couple” .. enough and more ‘Indian’ couples have climbed the Kilimanjaro and even Everest.. as a % of total population we might be in the top quartile!!! The fact that on an average we love cricket and politics more than our health is a matter of another debate altogether..

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    1. Excellent points Ashish. Reminds me of the bum on the beach story. I love the buzzword FWIO. But your first question really got me thinking. I think for many of us, work has become the default option. So while we may enjoy climbing mountains, organizing the treks take work. Balance unfortunately is a choice that doesn’t come naturally or easily in our current lives

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    2. Ashish I’m not sure what was your point, I freely admitted that I am comparing prices for a minivan i.e. I am also less balanced than what I’d like to be. My point was, all people can take a message from Pichette’s piece viz be more balanced and get off your butt and do something.

      Your stats about Everest are wrong: Indians are less than 5% of successful Everest summit climbers. I guess Kilimanjaro is more popular but I am not sure I’d put Indians in the “top quartile”. Again I am not splitting hairs on the numbers or stats here: my point is just that everyone (including me) could do better with balance in their lives.

      Now then, where is that discount coupon for the 14% off on the Innova??

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  4. Pichette’s piece is a description of his choices. He is very clear about his reasons, he has in fact enumerated them (1) kids are gone, (2) worked for 25-30 years, (3) “too early to tell”. So he retires in the early fifties. Good enough.

    But your piece Shoba has some concerning and IMHO incorrect/incomplete points e.g.The observation that the husband traveled a lot and “left his spouse to do the child rearing” is probably your life Shoba, not Pichette’s. He gives “a lot of credit” to his wife, but also mentions hockey and games etc. Fathers and sons in the USA have shared memories of baseball / hockey / football. Which Indian kid has a memory of playing cricket with his father?

    “Indian system geared for balance”, “India is full of that”. The *world* is full of that. In every modern country modern professionals buzz from point to point with their laptop/mobile in real time. Your bit about the second cousin’s wedding — is *equally* true in Japan and Scandinavia (I have first hand experienced this!) India is not the only country with deep rooted family ties – Indians should stop this frog in the well syndrome. OK Indian weddings are maybe longer and more elaborate, but if you were close to your cousin then you will attend his/her wedding – in Japan, Norway, Singapore, Germany wherever.

    I don’t think Pichette’s letter is an “apology” for anything. He & wife probably spent all the years in a Cheerio-filled minivan – like the rest of America or India I guess, they put in their time for their kids, and now it is time for them to continue their own adventure together. Pichette is lucky that his wife is eager to climb up to Mt. Kilimanjaro and want to venture further East, keep going. If anything Pichette’s letter is a call to like-minded and like-aged couples everywhere to get off their butt (even if off the Cheerio filled car seats) and go to their next adventure.

    Specific message I would take in the Indian context – Indians tend to live too much inside their head, ruminating about their caste or community or culture instead of just getting off their butt and doing something. If Pichette’s piece inspires one Indian couple (hey maybe even me in a few years) to stop that idyllic tea drinking session on the balcony — Yeah I know the nightingale is beautiful, and the enthralling 2 hour discussion on Buddhism and Modi-ji and the endless pakoras blah blah — and smash that teacup on the floor and get on a plane to Dar Es Salaam then that is advancement.

    But not yet for me. I am comparing prices for a minivan…hehe

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    1. Vishesh: I don’t know why you had to make it personal and drag my husband into it. You lost me there. I get your points about the Western ability to engage with the great outdoors and travel. I appreciate Japanese refinement and Scandinavian design and don’t claim to be an expert on their family structure. This essay was about Pichette. He is a “public figure,” not a “private person” to use the jargon of journalism. As journalists we are taught to call them out on discrepancies in their messages. I would not have been as harsh had your uncle or mine made the same statement.

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