Business is never straight forward although the theories and concepts might remain the same, much like the foundation of a historical building, the interiors and their use must be versatile to match current trends and needs. Most entrepreneurs need to be able to reinvent themselves or at least be flexible enough to be able to change direction and take advantage of new opportunities. To be successful at this, we need to be open to finding meaning and ideas in experiences or encounters, that is what sets us apart and enables us to grow and develop in both our professional and personal lives.
My days of college life at Manipal; the parties, the fun, and the friendships, all seem like a lifetime ago. Back then, in 1994, my friends were like my family. They knew me inside out and we battled through the ups and downs of college life together, making promises of travel, fun, success, and lifelong friendship. Slowly as the years went on each of us grew slightly distant with the pull of new families, work demands, and the reality of adult life.
I had worked hard during my college years, like they say, ‘work hard, play harder’ and I had carried forward this ethos into my professional career. Over the years I had encountered some great successes but recently my confidence in my own ability had taken a few knockbacks, affecting my belief and self-esteem. I was at a crossroads in my life where something needed to change, but I wasn’t sure what or how to make it happen. When I received a call inviting me to a college reunion weekend at MIT Manipal, I was apprehensive about going, even though I paid the deposit, I started to think of ways I could send my apologies.
Imposter syndrome is a common feeling, that affects lots of people at some point in their careers. It is characterized by feelings that you don’t deserve success or won’t succeed despite your accomplishments, it can be triggered by anxiety, and depression of demands placed on you by others and can present itself as a mountain of a barrier to productivity or personal development. Hindsight is a great thing, looking back I was blinded by my worries and work issues that I couldn’t see, I was facing my own personal Everest, little did I know, that the experience I was trying my hardest to avoid was exactly what I needed to overcome it.
For a number of years, I’ve been that person who can never entirely switch off, even on family vacations my notebook and emails weren’t too far away and it was easy for me to lose a few hours “just quickly doing this” much to the annoyance of my wife. As I stood looking at my packed bags, trying to figure out why I hadn’t made my excuses not to go, I held my notebook close to my chest, my fingers tapping against it. Something was holding me back from packing it. A simple comment from early in the day on the phone from a colleague swayed my thoughts; ‘you need to relax’. I had known for some time that I was getting more uptight, as time went on, I think the young man full of ideas and optimism who once thought the world was his oyster would not recognize me. I took a deep breath, put my notebook in my drawer, and picked up my bags to leave, promising myself to try and come back 3 days later with a different man.
At the airport, anxiety washed over me. In my head, I was still creating scenarios that could happen unexpectedly so I could excuse myself from the trip at the last minute. I saw a group of men standing together, patting one another on the back with a feeling of cheer in the air. I took a deep breath, painted the fake smile I’d learned to hold to on my face, and walked towards the group. Some of them I couldn’t place, age had changed faces and personalities that I once knew so well. After the welcomes I still found it difficult to relax into the experience, finding myself standing slightly off from the group checking emails or creating quick ‘to do’ lists, shortly afterward we got on the plane where a few others joined us. I sat next to a guy that at first, I couldn’t remember, wondering if he had accidentally been invited to the wrong reunion I made general small talk with him for most of the flight until it eventually clicked how we knew one another. Landing at Mangalore airport we were held up by an imposed curfew set due to some recent disturbances in the town, and almost instantly we fell back into our old roles. Those who naturally led started making plans about how we would safely get to our hostel ordering taxis and ensuring we all stayed together, we all became concerned about one another like it was only yesterday that we were last together.
I don’t know when it started happening, nor can I pinpoint why it happens, but check-ins are never smooth for me. There’s always something that I’m not happy with, maybe it’s my constant feeling of discontent and unhappiness that I feel that I must make a point that something that is created to give me happiness isn’t quite right. Regardless of why what was strange about checking into this hostel was everything was great. It wasn’t the most expensive hostel or the nicest hostel I’d ever stayed in, it offered the basics, but I was so distracted talking to my old friends that I didn’t notice any issues and even if I did, I don’t think I would have brought them up.
Not long after checking in, we started with a few drinks. After a little alcohol-induced courage I started to feel myself unwind, glimmers of the old me began to come back to life as fond memories and tall tales were brought to the surface meeting people, I hadn’t seen for decades. A few drinks more and it didn’t matter if I recognized people or not I enjoyed talking and reminiscing with them until my party was over and I ordered a taxi back to the hostel full of that college-like excitement, alcohol and strangely I felt hopeful. Drunk but a hopeful one.
The next day, the conversation flowed as naturally in the sober daylight as it did at the party. Over breakfast we agreed to go and visit our old campus, unfortunately, lots had changed over the years. What was once a vast campus with natural spaces and beautiful buildings was now full of harsh concrete buildings and soccer pitches, our old lives as carefree teenagers were now just distant memories of a time gone by. In the evening it had been arranged for us all to go to a rock concert, it was like we had been transported back to the ’90s, with old classics like Guns’n’Roses and Pink Floyd I felt the old me starting to make a comeback, the smile on my face wasn’t forced now and with my friends around me, a new feeling started to stir inside.
On the last day, we visited old professors, those who were still with us at least, took group photographs, and spoke about how our aspirations and priorities had changed since leaving college. We all realized that each of us in our own ways had been nervous about this reunion, it was then that I noticed that everyone has a degree of imposter syndrome, the big dreams we have as teenagers at college are far from the reality for most of us, this gave me a sense of relief to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling like they had to put on a successful front, but also got me thinking about how I could bring this feeling back to my work, tap into this support network that enables growth and development and doesn’t crush people under ridiculous expectations.
In the evening we went on a cruise, by this point I don’t think I even recognized the man who turned up 2 days ago. I hadn’t thought about my emails, I felt excited to go home to see my family, it felt as though a breath of fresh air had swept through me taking the anxiety and negativity it held before with it. Taking the position of cruise DJ we all danced and drank well into the early hours of the morning, reliving those heartfelt promises to be friends forever, it was one of the best evenings of my life and one that I will never forget. The next morning, we lounged on the beds laughing and joking with one another. Despite the constant laughter, there was a touch of sadness in the air because today marked the end of the reunion, we had breakfast again and some of us visited our old haunts of the town before finally making our way back to the airport and back to our lives.
On the plane I went over the events of the reunion, trying to think about how I could tap into this feeling that made me feel at ease yet motivated. I realized that to be successful, you don’t need to constantly compare yourself to your peers or try to outdo them. Instead, you need to support one another and create a bond that encourages growth and from that success shall come. Alongside this, I needed some balance in my life. No more checking emails on my vacations or days off, instead, I would focus my time on my family and friends. Taking care of my well-being and passions that I had let slip over the years.
My experience has given me a fresh outlook on life and work, it has shown me that to be successful I don’t need to give up my life for work and that taking some time for fun doesn’t mean I’m any less driven to achieve rather it makes me more motivated to achieve and support others in achieving too because there is nothing quite like friendship.