The Risk-free Indian

Posted: February 6, 2011 by Gurveen Bedi in Career, Indian, life
Tags: , , ,

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

Multiple horror movies have shown “The Road Not Taken” as a scary path to walk on – full of shocks that will spring upon you out of nowhere, a dangerous route where every step needs to be taken with utmost care. And we, the current Indian student generation, consider the vision shown by these movies as the truth. Thus, we live all our lives, trying to follow the footsteps of previously successful people who have gone down “The Road Most Taken”. A large majority of us aspire to be engineers, that too IITians, and then MBAs, that too IIMites, and then consultants, I-bankers, traders. Those who go to commerce or other engineering colleges regret not having an IIT degree, those who go to the MDIs and the XLRIs of the world, wish that they had cracked CAT and many who go into marketing wish that they had got a Day 0 job. The people on the other side of the line gloat on and on about the perfect life that they have managed to create for themselves. But this is a glossed-over version of the truth. In reality, several of those IITians are misfits who could have done much better in an Arts degrees, several of those IIMites would have been better off doing entrepreneurship or doing an MS in their field of engineering, and several of those Day 0 candidates would have been much happier in an advertising career. The only reason for these skewed career paths in our generation is our basic risk-aversion, which pushes us towards certain well-known and successful career paths and keeps us averted from other so-called “different” career paths.

Risk aversion is inherent in the Indian culture. Even our ancient scriptures preach against risk-taking – they speak of Yudhishtira who took huge risks in the game of Chaupar and lost everything and show how that one incident caused the biggest war of those times. This risk aversion is an accepted fact, but the interesting thing is that we have a habit of continually praising its merits, without looking at its downside. The recent recession and India’s stable situation in it, especially relative to US, has given us even more reasons to praise it. We shy away from loans, we save for the future, we build stable personal careers, and we love MNCs: we seem pretty smart don’t we? The downside is that we grow at a much slower rate, we prefer to jump onto the bandwagon rather than walk alone, we rarely start-up new businesses unless we have an extremely strong financial background, and we almost always take “The Road Most Taken”. Hence, the same risk aversion that we boast of, is the reason why India has had limited returns in the past. And contrastingly, it is the risk-philic nature of US populace, which has led them to be a superpower, that has helped cultivate a culture of innovation and fostered the creation of companies like Google, 3M, Ford and Pfizer. But we tend to concentrate on the Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and choose to exemplify them to show the iconic failure of the “American dream” rather than appreciate the school dropouts who created Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. What we fail to realize is that by our risk averseness, though we have ensured that there will be no Lehman Brothers in India, we have also killed the possibility of creation of hotbeds of innovation like Apple.

Let me clarify that I am no different in this regard. I am an engineering misfit who has chosen the conventional path in the lure of assured returns, one who has not had the courage to try things closer to the heart. In fact, that is why I sat down today to think of the reasons behind this phenomenon. One of the prime reasons is that we are an emerging economy, not a developed one yet. As a consequence, a lot of us have seen our parents in constrained financial situations in our childhood. We do not want to go through similar difficulties; hence continual supply of money is an important factor for us, which drives us away from the perceived risks in entrepreneurship. Another reason is that in the professional job-space in India, a Curriculum Vitae (CV) holds more value than people themselves. And that is because the interviewers are themselves risk-averse, hence they trust a CV more than a personal interview. This drives people to try and acquire maximum number of good brands on their CV, thus driving them towards the conventional path again. One reason is also that our society and peer group places certain professions on a pedestal as compared to others, thus societal pressure pushes everyone to go for those professions where there is more perceived respect. In fact if a graduate goes into entrepreneurship, we all tend to believe that it was because he/she was unable to land herself a good job. An overarching cause is also that the above reasons combine to create a vicious circle – since some career paths have been more treaded-on they have become more developed and hence more profit-making. For example, the probability of a CA earning a high salary is higher than that of an artist, just because the art scene in India is still in its initial stages.

In this situation, I cannot expect a utopian transformation to occur in this generation – that we suddenly start valuing the “different” career path and all of us start doing what our heart truly desires. In fact I am not even sure whether the next generation will be very different in this regard, whether we will give them enough space to try alternate careers. But I can only hope that with more stability in their backgrounds and more confidence in their personal selves, at least some of them will hopefully venture out to explore those untreaded-on paths with more courage than we did.

As for me,

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and a generation after:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one more travelled by,
And that was recipe for disaster.

  1. Nimit Mehra says:

    Agree with you about engineering misfits in college. But about entrepreneurship, I remember a quote by a alumini of mine- he said that its people like you who should take up entrepreneurship- not because you may have the best ideas or strategy because of your degree ( the other person might be much better). But according to him it this risk averse degree which gives you the room to take risk. He said worse cum worse if your venture fails, you still have that degree to bank on which may get you a job. To me at that time it made a lot of sense.
    ( The alum is multi millionaire serial entrepreneur in the valley)

    Secondly its more about a society thing. You get into an IIT, you see your peers preparing for cat … you take it, and want to get into an IIM and make that day 0 job. Just to prove that you are the best among your sample. In another sample- take for example gujju’s ( not being racist here, just remembered a few friends of mine from 10th) its “business” and “profit” that defines you rather than the job. In that sample there would be a misfit entrepreneur.

    It all depends on the society you grow up in and whether you have the courage to go against the ” succesful path ” for that society.

    As always Nice post!

  2. kapil says:

    Very well written,
    Though I do not agree to all the ideas presented. When you say “And contrastingly, it is the risk-philic nature of US populace, which has led them to be a superpower, that has helped cultivate a culture of innovation and fostered the creation of companies like Google, 3M, Ford and Pfizer”, I believe you are partially true at most. It’s not only the nature of people but risk-return profile also has a big contribution towards it.
    In USA, by working part time for 3 hours a day you could earn a decent life style. And the difference between salary earned at a start up ( assume 30k/ year ) and BCG (120k/ year ) is not much in terms of life style but the ratio of income earned in the same two companies in india is ( 20/2 = 10 ) very high.
    I hope as risk return profile gets flatter in india with time, more and more people would opt for ” less traveled path “

  3. Abhiraj Bhal says:

    I am reminded of words by Mark Twain –

    “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

    The tendency to take the least resistance path is not specific to just IITs or IIMs, it is deeply entrenched in the human pschye (Sure, some cultures are more risk taking and others more risk averse). The ‘road less travelled by’ will always be taken by fewer people, and those are the people who will make the big difference. The rest of us will just go about doing our jobs.

  4. Nishit Vora says:

    Well i think you have generalized too much. You take about risk taking ability i will give you my example.

    Completed Engineering from Dj Sanghvi college of engineering 2009
    Got in IIT bombay Mtech final convert..could have taken it and lived a peaceful life.
    I rejected. I joined MNC hoping to learn something..found it shit..left a regular source of income( I Don’t belong to a financially very sound family)
    Started a website for video lectures for engineers (
    Soon it became very difficult to finance our venture..Started online discount excellent idea propel the local retails( not any branded).. Failed in proper implementation maybe due to lack of proper experience..scored 99.15 in cat during 2010..din’t take admission in any college..just trying a bit more to stretch..but presently the scenario is not rosy i have secured admission in decent B school( Cuz of some pressure and understandable ) Still i have not loose hope.. I must and i will start something big..Hopefully it starts soon :-).
    I doubt if anyone will say that i have not taken a risk.

  5. Gurveen Bedi says:

    Hey Nishit

    I really appreciate the risks that you have taken and spoken of above. Its just that most people rarely do this. We all just take the simple, safe path and I admit, even I am one of them!

    We may have generalized in this blog post, but our opinions are based on generalizations and not the exceptions. But I appreciate that you brought an exception out, gives us all some encouragement I am sure:)

    Am sure you will make a successful entrepreneur one day, meanwhile, all the very best for B-school!

  6. madhavisingh says:

    Realy Nice

  7. Murli says:

    Everyone wants to go toheaven but no one wants to die.

  8. vs says:

    True. It is all a cultural thing. Society molds it that way. Less space for individual choices liberty and more of a collective herd mentality hampering creativity and innovation. Moreover the need to raise a family and have children and to nurture them is the fundamental driver behind this. Risk aversion is a natural consequence.

  9. You are wrong about vedic scriptues forbading taking risk. In fact, vedic civilization or aryans were huge risk takers, and all great vedic sages, kings lost entire property. It is these modern hindus who are like that, baniya types, constantly worrying.

    Do not compare vedic aryans with these subhumans or hindus.

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