Dear Millennials, It’s Okay to do Seemingly Random Tasks at Work
This post was prompted by multiple things and experiences. The struggles of my fellow entrepreneurs and myself with hiring new talent may have been the primary reason, but what prompted me to put a finger to key at 3 AM on a Sunday was by Humans of Bombay, who profiled Manisha Girotra, the former CEO and Country Head of UBS, which has just short of a trillion dollars in assets.
In the post, she is quoted as follows:
My first few stints included delivering pizza to my bosses, labelling 15,000 chairs and keeping stock of stationery...Manisha Girotra, the former CEO and Country Head of UBS
Manisha Girotra graduated with a gold medal for her Master’s Degree from the Delhi School of Economics, arguably, one of the most prestigious Economics courses in India.
To think of such an intellect made to do menial tasks such as labelling chairs or keeping a stock of inventory seems like a massive misallocation of resources, profoundly magnified for a company that is in the business of making investors money based off their skill and talent for allocating wealth and resources in a manner that the return is manifold. And yet, Manisha Girotra, the gold medallist from DSE and future CEO, even delivered pizza to her bosses.
An entrepreneur friend I met, last week, described in a jocular vein his experience of interviewing a candidate who sought a sales position at his startup recently. When the founder asked the interviewee what he knew of the startup or why he wanted to work there, the latter explained (and I’m quoting here):
“Well, you see I didn’t read up much about your company because the last interview I went to I did a lot of reading and didn’t get the job. I was heartbroken then, and didn’t want to repeat that experience... just in case.”
We laughed in absolute bewilderment, more than anything else. We’ve had to work closely together and such a thought, however clever, seemed irredeemably foolish and arrogant to the both of us.
Unfortunately, his interviews over the last couple of months haven’t been any better. He is frustrated to the point of contracting all positions except the ones that are an absolute necessity. His company is generating real profits, has high calibre people, and is even paying a decent sum for the said positions. Yet, he is unable to close them.
It’s not about poor skills, he says; it’s the lax attitude. Talk to any entrepreneur, and they are likely to agree.
I joined the workforce at possibly the worst time in the last decade – at the height of the subprime induced economic slowdown. Even pre-placement offers were dishonoured by eminent companies, and joining dates were indefinitely postponed. Jobs seemed rare and it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see long lines of candidates, file in hand, milling outside large, important buildings.
Having only recently finished a stint at an oil refinery in my final semester of engineering, I had sworn to never return to the mind-numbing ordeal that was pulling levers and pushing switches in 40 degree heat in the middle of nowhere.
Driven by desperation and purely by chance, I landed a job at a startup. Before that I’d done odd gigs like surveying cigarette smokers (not a charitable lot) or playing music to patrons of cafes and pubs (only marginally more charitable). It was my first real office job. I imagined a desk and some serious matters to tend to. But, it was not quite that.
Startups then were always running a couple of hands and legs short of what was required, and since we couldn’t really afford specialists, my odd-job streak continued.
On various days, I had to fix the electrical socket, negotiate a lunch outing, research on the most optimal mobile/internet connection, or any of the other totally random tasks that one can think of being required in an enterprise.
All of this while also reaching out to companies and selling recruitment solutions when possibly every major corporation was downsizing its staff. Maybe it was the thought of having to go back to the oil refinery, I just put my head down to it and executed.
That experience is perhaps why I appreciate the Manisha Girotra Instagram post all the more. The undeniable virtues of doing those seemingly random tasks is apparent every day of my life now.
It is not an accident of fate that I am known to negotiate reasonably well, form meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, and get shit done most of the times. The art of the hustle is not an accident but a well disciplined practice.
It’s like when my parents’ generation enrolled their kids in extracurricular activities, be it cricket or music. While the odds of that kid being the next Sachin Tendulkar or Freddie Mercury were miniscule, there was a near 100% chance that it built character. You learned teamwork, discipline, patience and host of other vital skills that was bound to stand you in good stead in the real world. It’s what Randy Pausch described as a head fake in his profound .
So, when I hear of the current generation being the most entitled lot, that bounces jobs & relationships (incidentally), often enough in search of meaning, I feel terribly sorry for them (Simon Sinek describes this phenomenon in fascinating detail).
They are missing out on the most important intangible values that aren’t learned at study or acquired in soft skills training workshops. For there is more to work, than work itself. Remember... the CEO of UBS, a gold medallist from DSE, started her illustrious career by labeling chairs and keeping inventory of the stationary.
(Roshan Cariappa is a Bangalore-based tech entrepreneur, occasional writer, and musician. He finds inspiration in Bharat, dharma, economics, music, and startups. He tweets at @carygottheblues.)