This is the third installment of our interview with Adam Pervez – volunteer, traveler, writer and MBA grad. (Read the first part here and second part here). For those still in the dark, Adam is an engineer from Ohio State and an MBA graduate from IE Business School – Spain. He quit his comfortable job with Siemens Wind Power, Denmark (paying a six-figure salary) before deciding to follow his passions – travelling, and giving back to society. The HappinessPlunge and the Happy Nomad Tour - an 18 month tour of the world is the result of his initiative to travel and volunteer around the world with the objective of leaving each place better than how it was when he found it. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post. He has also written for The Economist and been featured on BusinessWeek. [Update: If this story has inspired you, you may want to read about Adam's Crazy Hair FundRaiser for kids with cancer]
We sent him quite a lot of questions, and he replied in such depth and detail that we felt the only way of doing justice would be to do this interview in parts.
Most MBA students from leading B schools (whether India or abroad) use their degree in one of the following ways
a. As a form of insurance against the vagaries of the job market
b. As a launch pad into lucrative careers like strategy consulting and investment banking – whose contribution to the real economy is minimal.
Do you think this needs to change? How would you try to change this?
A mandatory one-week trip to Auroville before starting the MBA program. Kidding! Yes, too often the MBA degree is being used to create shareholder value instead of value for society. What you’ve said here is a bit of the tragedy of the commons in action, and India more than any other place exemplifies the tragedy of the commons.
I’m not sure this needs to change. The corporate world will always need its people to carry out its work. What I’d like to see change is the kind of students these programs admit. Unfortunately, as I wrote about here, the rankings system top business schools abide by have badly embedded incentives to admit students that will earn a lot of money after the program. Having a more balanced student base would help greatly. It’s a shame the rankings don’t take into account the impact students have on society after graduation – only how much money they earn.
I’m not sure you can just change this overnight. Women din’t used to go to business school, but now many schools are quite gender balanced. It takes time for evolution to take place. I think we’re in the process of evolving and, as Darwin said, those (schools) who fail to adapt to the changing times will go extinct. And last I checked, we’re all headed toward extinction if we don’t change our relationship with our limited resources.
On a scale of social impact, how would you rank NGOs, entrepreneurship (of all shades) and the corporate world?
I presume you mean positive social impact. All three inflict both positive and negative social impact.I think it’s really hard to rank them as social impact could take the form of employment, fixing social problems like education or health care, even basic human rights.
Still, entrepreneurship probably leads the pack. It’s so empowering, often local and inspiring. It creates employment, whether for a family or for a community. It often inspires (and provides the funds for) subsequent generations to get more educated, etc. It can break the poverty cycle, though if things go wrong it can lead to crippling debt as well.
The impact of NGOs can’t be ignored. Often they focus on a particular issue to solve and work hard at solving it. Many end up being self-serving, as a good NGO would work hard toward its own elimination. Does an NGO that provides excellent schooling in underprivileged parts of the world create social impact? Yes, maybe more than anything else. But many leave much to be desired, creating dependency instead of providing empowerment, and not living up to their missions.
The corporate world also has a role to play in all this. No doubt much of the innovation that makes our lives more comfortable and enjoyable have come from the corporate world. Still, their mission is to return as much as possible to shareholders. Positive social impact isn’t necessarily part of their mission, though arguably they have the funds to make a huge impact if they so choose.
Do you think your upbringing in the USA, where people are fairly independent in their choice of careers, has helped you in your outlook towards your career?
It’s hard to say. I said earlier that I didn’t know what social pressure was until I got to India, but by all means there is social pressure in the USA as well. I was finishing high school in the middle of the dot com boom and that all swayed me toward computer engineering over medicine. Though I ended up in the oil industry since it offered me an international career, the dot com boom led me to electrical and computer engineering.I think more than my upbringing in the USA, my parents helped me in my outlook. They always asked me what I wanted to be when I was growing up and whether I said policeman, basketball player, doctor, astronaut, Air Force fighter pilot, or engineer, they were always supportive. I have bad eyesight so I could never have been a fighter pilot, but they didn’t tell me that. They were always supportive. I think this support plus knowing what I wanted helped me in my outlook toward my career.
Again, I’m sure many still think I’m crazy. Some friends even write me to ask if my vacation is over, thinking this was a one-year gap year before I settle down and be a grown up again. But it doesn’t bother me. I live my life my way, and they live their life their way. To quote the Dalai Lama, “People take different roads seeking fulfilment and happiness. Just because they are not on your road doesn’t mean they are lost.”
What you have done would be very difficult to do in India – given the level of status insecurity here. What is your message to those who are reluctant to follow their dreams?
Yes, I know. As I answer the questions of people I meet for the first time, where I’m from, which schools I went to, my dad’s name and profession, my past jobs, etc. Well, I never seem to fit into any of the boxes here in India. But I have the luxury of being a foreigner and not having to answer to anyone. When the mother of a friend asked me why I am wasting all my money on traveling, I answer earnestly but it doesn’t bother me.
I would put it this way. If you decide to go off and do your own thing you know what will happen. Everyone will talk about you. Everyone will talk behind your back. Many will call you crazy to your face and ask if you are intentionally trying to shave decades off your parents’ life expectancy. But you know what? I bet in some way they’ll be secretly jealous since everyone here seems to yearn to break free but feels bound to the norms governing society. Yet as I said above, that social contract we have with one another will be broken and they’ll want to convince you to stay the same so as not to disturb their concept of reality.
I also find it strange that there is so much status insecurity here given your roots as such a spiritual place. Status is firmly rooted in the ego and often here it’s rooted in something as arbitrary as the caste you were born into. The Indian identity is composed of many things difficult for a foreigner to understand – including why people here choose to define themselves in such a way.
It’s very hard for me to understand how you’d forgo your dreams to please others. India is the land of acceptance and tolerance, which is great, but don’t let it squash your dreams.
Lastly, since you all have to get married and have kids, I’ll say this. Picture yourself as a 75-year-old grandma or grandpa. What kind of stories do you want to tell your grandkids? And if you don’t break the cycle then who will? It’s only difficult in India because so few go outside the norm. But the more who do, the more people will feel empowered to pursue their dreams. “Act now and you can have first-mover advantage!”
All I can say is that it’s a very liberating experience going after your dreams and not caring what others think. It’s a weight lifted off your shoulders that allows you to move so much faster and achieve better results than you ever thought possible. By all means, it’s a more difficult way to approach life, but at the same time it offers the most personal satisfaction.