My early adulthood has been different from most around me. After nearly six years of being in some kind of a leadership role, I recently found myself in a position where I felt like ‘one amongst many’. Ten months of this new life have given me as much learning about life, people, and myself as those previous six years in leadership. I might never have learned all this, if it were not for the crucial decision to give up all that I had built and study again.
Setting the context
I founded an Internet startup one month shy of my 18th birthday, in my first year of college. Suddenly, I found myself leading a nationwide team of talented, enthusiastic youngsters. When I was 20, my team won its first international award, and I had already spent a year mentoring young writers, often working 13-14 hours a day. It was challenging but rewarding. By 21, I had my second award and some press coverage; and by 22, I had quit and was teaching kids at a government school in a disadvantaged community, as part of a leadership development fellowship programme.
In July 2015, I entered a postgraduate course. This new life gave me a chance to introspect and reflect on life around me – life as an ‘equal’, a life that I had last known when I wasn’t even old enough to know about ‘life’. Suddenly, I saw how all those years the people around me had always looked up to me in some manner or the other. I never really had enough people who I could call ‘friends’, who treated me as an ‘equal’. Here, I was no more the editor, counsellor, the coach, the teacher, and community leader.
Here is what I learned:
1) At times, you must step back. Leadership at a young age – as glorious as it may sound with all its achievements – must be voluntarily relinquished at a point in time, to reflect on the world from a fresh, grassroots perspective. Leadership taught me a lot about life, people and tough situations, but early adulthood also needs space for a whole lot of other learnings. For me, this time gave me ample space to read a lot and understand the world better. I travelled solo and spent time going out, finally exploring great friendships. Full-time enthusiastic leaders are prone to getting consumed by their work. Stepping back for a while and climbing down the ladder of success and stature helps.
When I say stepping back, I do not mean a short break but completely leaving that work and coming down to the lifestyle of “the ordinary”. There are always other ideas to explore, new things to build, and more ways to solve the world’s problems – all the things that early leadership makes you oblivious to. Early leadership may even make you ignorant of all of the world’s problems, your own skillset, and your preferred life path, thus limiting you. I have loved the anonymity and ordinariness of this year – and I know it will help me to come back stronger.
2) Leading like-minded people gives an incomplete picture. Before I came to j-school, I had spent six years with people who wanted to impact the world and were doing everything to push themselves in their work, learning, and thought processes. Now, I was suddenly around people who got upset at even the slightest challenge, who had little interest in conscious learning because, well, “I am who I am”, but still spent their days complaining about the unfairness of the world. They did less, but expected more. For leaders, it’s the reverse.