riches to rags

I wrote the following piece (with some minor edits for context) 1.5 years ago, at a low point in my life, to myself more than anything else. Recently, when I meet people and they ask me if they should give up their job to pursue work for the greater good, I find I have a tough time giving them a straight answer. Here’s the story of why.
April 4, 2011
I’ve never felt as much of a failure in my life as I do now. It’s almost laughable- I’m spearheading a movement centered around redefining failure in the midst of my own massive failure, and I’m struggling to recognize and embrace it myself. Here I am, telling everyone else to learn from their mistakes, to share their failures with the world so that others can learn from them, and until now, I’ve been too embarrassed to admit my own to myself, let alone to the world. This is my failure to share with you: My idealism has driven me into severe bankruptcy, and this is my story of how, why, where, and what I’ve learnt. I can only hope you can take something from it.
I started out a simple stamp. I had dreams for the world but my perception of my own ability to make those dreams come true were distant. I didn’t actually believe I could be the one to make those dreams for the world come true. So I went along living my life in my comfortable bubble, caring for myself and believing that the change that needed to be made would be made eventually, by others. I truly did not believe I had the tools, intelligence or willpower to knock down paradigms and shift mindsets into seeing things another way. So I took the road more travelled, the road with signs and directions and speed limits. I lived for myself and only myself. I assumed happiness was this: seeing more zeros attached to my paycheck, swiping a plastic card here and there buying things that felt nice, going to places I thought I’d fit into if I just flashed my pearly white smile and my pretty little shoes.
The world, to me, was that which I could see, that which I could understand, that which was easy, obvious, untainted. I moved with an air of entitlement that I thought was becoming of me. An air that quickly turned sour, dark, and hollow. The day I stepped back from it all, things changed.
My mindset, my perspective, my empoweredness. My desires, my hopes and my dreams for “one day” became “today.” It became now or never. Suddenly, I felt like a whole person. Magically, I felt compassion. I felt humility. I felt human. But it came with a cost.
Leaving the world of investment banking on Wall Street for a world of Killing Fields on rice paddies was jarring. It changed me completely. It showed me how cruel humans can be. It taught me how resilient we are, how willing we are to move forward with the taste of hope and fear mixed together on our tongue. How to live in confusion. How to listen. How to hurt. How to love unconditionally. It taught me to be a human being.
It also taught me that to become human, we must withstand an 82% cut in our income. To live amongst those who make up 3 billion of our population, I had to be put to the test by also earning almost nothing.
It was an important lesson in life for me: trying to help the poor find a meal doesn’t pay as well as helping the rich buy more crap. It seems obvious when I write it, clearly the wealthy can afford to pay you more to make them wealthier. But the frustrating part is that it not only “doesn’t pay as well,” it pays severely less. If we consider money to be one of the determining factors for worth and respect in this world, what this means is that as a society, we give more worth and respect to those who widen the inequality gap than we do those who hope to close it one day. Isn’t this slightly absurd? This is not to say that the wealthy do not provide jobs to the poor, that they do not offer solutions out of poverty, that they do not support the market upon which our society operates. This is simply to say that those of us who want to jump the ladder, whether up a few steps or down a few, are rarely supported and rewarded.
Taking into account the cost of living in Phnom Penh, an 82% cut in income was surprisingly enough to get by- I could pay the bills and live more comfortably than I had on Wall Street. But I couldn’t save. I couldn’t pay off my loans. I couldn’t live this way because I was an American and brought along with me all the baggage of being an American to Cambodia. What I failed to realize then was that living hand to mouth is not sustainable, is not optimal, and is not viable to support me in my future endeavors.
I had been afforded tools that I would someday use to try to make a change in the world, but I could only make that change with access to money that would allow me to get by, to meet the right people, to seek answers to imperative questions, to create and build for the poor something that truly mattered.
But I was naive and fulfilled in my hope to find meaning then. I was being paid and was thankful for that, even just that. So I went along with it. I focused on the world immediately in front of me, the world I could affect in some small way, each day, and found happiness in it. I continued in this way for 2 years, saving little, spending little, living blissfully. What little I had saved after 2 years, I spent on researching more, educating myself, filling in gaps that my $40K/year highbrow education had skipped over. I became deeply concerned for the state of our world, and I became hungry to change it.
I also became broke. I failed to save, I failed to plan, I failed to think this whole shebang through. How was I going to start a company reforming education off of $500 in my bank account? How would I put together a conference and create a brand around failure when I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent next month?
It became blatantly evident that I’d failed myself. I had failed the education my parents spent hundreds of thousands on. I had failed the system that made the “flat world” sound so simple, obvious, and perfect. I had failed my idealism. I had failed my support system. I had failed my people.
I recently put together a resume after 2 years of running my own companies and social enterprises. I applied to baby sitting jobs, Google jobs, personal assistant jobs, coffee shop jobs, online jobs- whatever I could find that might allow me to make rent, to buy some groceries, and to get by. I even asked my parents to help me out- for someone who has an unhinged ego about her enlightened chosen path in life and how it will sustain her forever, this was an all-time most difficult decision for me. An incredible friend offered to loan me some money, and I hit rock bottom. I realized I had dug myself into this hole, and the only way out is to slowly get a solid foundation underneath my feet.
In hindsight, I think idealism is actually a double-edged sword. It allows us to fight against cruelty, inhumanity, and immorality, while it slowly bleeds us of the facts of the world. The fact that money is necessary, transient, but necessary, became more and more illusive as I blazed my own trail. This is not a fact merely true for the wealthy- all human beings require some form of trade for their talent. Humans also plan for rainy days, when their talent is useless, when their children are hungry, when they must get through a difficult time. This is the part I left out. I assumed my idealism and passion would get me through every day of the year. And it’s simply not the way of the world.
There are sunny days and there are rainy days. And sometimes we just want to jump in the puddles and get muddy and make a mess of things while making a few passerby laugh. But sometimes, it gets a bit cold out and a jacket and some galoshes might be nice, too.
I have nothing left but what I’ve learned, who I’ve met, and what I’ve become. This, I hope, will eventually pay off. But for now, for today, I must settle in the realization that I have failed.
Updates since then: I dug myself out and found myself a home and life and a happy place in New Delhi, India. I have a job that fulfills my passionate goal to educate more kids. There will be many more failures along the yellow brick road, from which I hope to glean many more stories and perhaps even a few successes.
Until then, here’s to the hungry and the foolish.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hey Shabnam,
    I have been following you from last few months, I should say I was really impressed with your blogs and aims to bring about a change in the world. For starters, you seldom see an American of Indian origin coming back to India in pursuit of achieving something noble as this and to have known that you lived in Cambodia for two years is commendable.
    The experiences that you have narrated are indeed inspiring for people like me who still aspire to follow idealism. I am still at crossroads when it comes to choosing the path ahead for myself. But given that, I am thoroughly convinced that we cannot do away with the monetary side of our life as the whole world runs/ is driven by it. I might be wrong when I say that the entire world is driven by money, but this seems to be the harsh truth to me.
    Is there a possibility for idealism to survive when it demands compulsory austerity to be adopted along with it? I highly doubt we will see people coming out in large numbers to follow idealism as very few choose to be austere in their living. You may say that we don’t need large number of people following their idealism to bring about a radical change. But I strongly feel that more and more people should be doing that to bring about the change that we dream of.
    So, I must say I have kind of given up on following a path of idealism until of course I have made enough money afford a life of austerity!

  2. Sundeep says:

    I am really glad that you’ve shared this. All the best.

  3. Madhu says:

    Dear Shabnam,
    I love reading your blogs. Your writings are beautiful. One can never put a $$ value on lessons learned in life. You have learned so much from your own experiences and will continue to learn more as you go through life, Everyday of our life brings new lessons of life.
    You are very fortunate to have a good education to back you up. You have choices.

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