A Year-long Conversation With Readers

Updated: Aug 30 2003, 05:30am hrs
Thomas L Friedman, the Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for The New York Times says he has the greatest job in the world. He can travel anywhere in the world he wants, write about anything he wants. And get paid lots of money to do it.

I have the greatest job too. Except for the money part. And the travel part.

Nevertheless I do have the freedom to write about anything I want. Today, I complete one year of writing this column-that is, 52 pieces of going with the whim. Since its an anniversary of sorts, allow me to self-indulge a bit.

One year ago, when The Financial Express editor Sanjaya Baru asked me to write a column on the business of life it seemed like a dream. Write about whatever is going on in your life-work, home, travel, kids, he said, take a personal experience and then generalise it. No problem, I thought.

But when I sat down to actually write, it was terrifying. What should I write about As a journalist covering current issues, it was easy. The raw materialthe who, what, when, where, whywas right there before me. All I had to do was nail it down.

But personal experience Suddenly nothing in my life seemed big or important enough to write about. Much of it was downright embarrassing. Beside who would be interested in a non-celebritys ordinary life, especially in a paper that deals with important stuff like market movements and banking scandals. Would my Intense Family Experience interest you It seemed so terribly self-indulgent .

In the end, a deadline took care of the doubts. On the 31st of August last year, I wrote my very first piece: A life-changing period of doing nothing. I had recently quit a high-paying, high-pressure job to take time out and have a real life. So I wrote about that-and was then too embarrassed to look at the paper when it came out.

I truly did not anticipate the response I gotover 150 emails on the very first day from people saying how much they resonated with the theme. Maybe Jung was right when he said, That which is most personal is most common.

The feedback kept coming, tonnes of it. Soon it got addictive, leading me to a secret and compulsive life: I have five minutes free, quick let me log onto yahoo.co.in and see if theres any more mail. Usually there is. This isnt as much an ego trip as it is a sense of community with readers, who have been sharing their experiences with me. Suddenly it didnt feel like a newspaper column as much as it felt like an intimate conversation.

I learnt that I am not the first person to struggle with difficult bosses or fear rejection or feel like an imposter. Or freak out over mangoes. Our weaknesses unite us. Beneath the CEO who spends his day bossing over others at work is often a man who comes home and gets rudely yelled at by his teenage daughter. This sense of community has grown-like a bank account. I havent experienced anything quite like it.

The volume of feedback has also given me a sense of readers that market research sometime misses. Many readers live overseas, as far away as Mexico and Papua, New Guinea. Many read the paper online, a number which may not reflect in circulation figures. A surprising number are women.

I also discovered that there is no accounting for peoples tastes. Columns that I felt were ho-hum generated a huge response. Others that I especially liked fell flat. I have received hundreds of flattering emails but also a few critical ones. Who can say what will work In the end I just followed the advice of a good friend, a senior banker, who said: Write from the heart and forget about whos reading.

Apart from the discipline that writing a weekly column demands, it has also connected me to some of the deeper mysteries of writing itself. Often, I go to my PC with an idea of what I want to write about-but something entirely different writes itself. Now I know that all I need to do is listen carefully: this is less like thinking something up and more like taking something down. Almost like dictation.

A year ago when I quit a corporate job I had no job offers in handonly a fantasy of what I wanted my life to be like. I wanted both, moneyand freedom. To be part of a team-yet also independent. To do only work where I felt deep job satisfaction.

But how

Nothing happened. No great opportunities materialised. Some days were so lonely and scary, they almost forced me back into a corporate cage. Nevertheless I had made enough money in the dotcom boom to experiment for one yearand I did, taking many courses, learning new skills, being a student again.

And then, suddenly, a few months ago, the pieces started falling into place. Amazing work opportunities surfaced offering both, good money and freedom. I realise now that fantasies need time to incubate. A new life takes time to show up. There are choices other than a drugged 9-to-7 existence. It is possible to change your relationship to time and work. Yet, none of this would have been possible without a year of doing nothing. Being chained to a desk gives you only very limited views of your possibilities. I almost missed the bus-and then it arrived. I am quite dazed at this miracle.

Today its 11 am on Wednesday. You are probably in a meeting somewhere, discussing business targets. I am putting on some music-lets see, I think Ill hear some jazz today. I settle back on my couch with my laptop to write this column, after which I need to work on a corporate proposal, for which I will get a juicy fee. Next to me is a pot of aromatic fresh-brewed coffee. Outside, a soft rain is falling, green-washing everything around. The weather is great, the plants are drunk on a triple peg of Monsoon. Suddenly I think Id like to take the morning off and go for a loaf with friends.

And so I switch off my laptop and indulge my mood instead. Ill do the proposal later tonight. Time is available to me, like cash in hand, to spend any way I want. This is freedom. This is what I ordered.

The pleasure of owning my own time. Its a different kind of rich.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at simranonsaturday@yahoo.co.in