The strangest thing happened
to me on the way to setting up a business in Mysore. I became a “businessman.” Even
stranger, if something can be stranger than the strangest, is the fact that I’m
sort of liking it.
In my youth and young adulthood, I was, in no particular order, a socialist, communist, transcendentalist, stoner, activist, hippie, hipster, union leader, nightclubber, wannabee artist, dilettante punk, and rebel without a cause. Even when I went to law school, it started with some notion of training to help save the world from the rapacity of the capitalists. After I soon gave up on that and went into private practice, I at least felt proud that I never got involved in marketing, or got too caught up in office administration. While other lawyers were trawling for clients or holding business meetings, I was off to yoga class.
During my first two trips to Mysore, I of
course was aware of out sourcing and off shoring. My impression was not positive. Like most people who are not exactly
pro-business to begin with, I saw large companies ditching their loyal
employees in the West, all to fatten profits by hiring relatively poorly paid
people in the East. In Mysore,
I saw these corporations luring young people like they were lemmings, inducing
them to leave their families and abandon their culture and religion, all to
earn two bucks an hour in Bangalore
and other big, congested, semi-Westernized cities. There, many of these new employees live the
superficial lifestyle of cell phones, designer jeans, disco-hopping, and Domino’s
Pizza, (in Mysore we do have one Pizza Hut), often paying for the privilege by
working all night, answering telephone complaints or otherwise doing less than
Speaking of work that is not
always fulfilling, one Friday, back in the States, I was swamped with a
litigation matter. I needed to get some
subpoenas drafted and served by that Monday. Because I was not much of a businessman, much less a natural at being a
“boss,” I did not direct one of our junior associates to work on the weekend. Instead, I gingerly asked one of them if he
“wanted” to work on the weekend to get the subpoenas out. His response was, “honestly, no, I don’t – I’ve
got plans.” The first thing that popped
in my head was the memory of one of my local friends in Mysore, who
was trying to work his way through his university, and who was always asking me
for a job. I called him up, emailed him
the details, and he happily did the work for a dollar an hour, as he requested, which is more
than the going rate for Mysore
A few months later, the Manhattan office of our
firm was having a problem. The
immigration department, which handles visa applications for producers,
entertainers, artists, and others who need to come to the U.S. on
business, was finding itself extremely short-staffed. Too many chefs bringing in and managing
clients, in relation to the number of cooks needed to process the work. It then occurred to me that rather than move
to bigger and expensive office space in the city, and hire more staff there, we
could promote our secretarial staff to immigration paralegal jobs, while hiring
secretarial people and even more immigration paralegals in Mysore. With an extra office in Mysore,
we could handle thousands of visas a year, instead of hundreds.
I figured Mysore would be ideal, because as a university town, it has plenty of talented job
candidates, while at the same time a much lower cost, and higher quality of
living, in contrast to India’s
big cities. My local friends confirmed
that if decent jobs were in Mysore,
most graduates would prefer to stay in their home town, and live with their
families. Families, especially extended
ones living together, are a big deal here.
So I went online to find a
few things to send to my law partners about Mysore. I discovered that my idea
was hardly original. Astute business
analysts from India and all
over the world already have concluded that Mysore
Anyway, my unoriginal idea
about setting up offices in Mysore kept growing and growing. The more I
learned about out sourcing and off shoring in India, the more I realized that all
of the work we do in New York, Los Angeles, and London, with the exception of
getting clients, strategizing about their situations and ours, providing legal
advice, and once in a while showing up in court, can be done better and more
efficiently by talented, highly educated people in Mysore.
After even more research, I
convinced my firm to establish a full-blown off shoring subsidiary here in Mysore. We ran an ad campaign in the local and national newspapers, sifted
through over 500 job applications, interviewed 30 of the most qualified
candidates, and signed a lease for some great commercial space (which costs
much less than our monthly bill in Manhattan for ordering coffee). We are about to hire our core group of 7 managers
(including a general manager, an assistant manager, and 5 department managers,
including an IT administrator, a lawyer, a professional employee training
expert, an accountant, and a bookkeeper). They’ll then hire the next wave of employees themselves.
During the interview
process, there was no shortage of comical moments. Like when applicants responded to our request
for writing samples (to demonstrate proficiency
in English). Instead of sending letters,
articles, or papers they had written, a few people sent pieces of paper with a
line or two of handwriting, showing their penmanship. Another source of amusement was my learning
curve regarding Indian culture, as exemplified in the first interview. I got
off to bad start by attempting to shake hands with a very embarrassed female
applicant in front of husband. In the U.S.,
this apparently would be like trying to fondle her breasts. I also thought it was funny when one especially
aggressive applicant simply refused to leave the interview room, for at least
an anxious minute or two. I did not realize
that for some people, attending a job interview is somewhat similar to begging
on the street. My assistant, Sree, who
organized the whole process, also got a kick out of the fact that people were
calling him “sir” for the first time in his life. He further enjoyed it when one of the
applicants telephoned him with a bribe offer.
So why am I liking
all of this? For one thing, to my great
surprise, it feels extremely creative. During one of my youthful phases mentioned above, when I tried to
pretend to be an esthete, I thought that business sucked, and only art mattered. Even if it was Iggy and The Stooges, or
making bullshit videos in the Lower East Side.
Now, the putting together of this group of
remarkable people with different talents and personalities, in the creation of
a brand new company, feels like real artistry. Or a little bit like being both the
playwright and casting director for a play, but without the casting couch! Didn’t Shakespeare say all the world’s a
stage? Okay, so I’m just one of the “players.” But I like being a player, even a world full
of them. It sure beats lying around on
the floor whining about being bored, or wasting time drinking. I can hardly wait until after the opening
puja is finished, and the new employees start working together for the first
From the spiritual point of
view, a lot of people will say that the only thing that matters is
God-realization. But where do we find
God? Yes, within, but I’m sure most
sages, gurus, and mystics agree that divinity is not just within what
you think of as yourself, but within your true self, i.e., the whole
never-ending swirl of everyone and everything. So sure, look within, but in doing so, I don’t think we need to renounce
the rest of the world. The Buddha, in
arriving at the Middle Way,
a road to liberation that stays clear of both gluttony and asceticism, came up
with the Noble Eightfold Path. One of
the eight folds is “right livelihood.” I’m guessing the Buddha felt that liberation was not to be achieved by
being a yoga bum.
In particular, I admire people who practice seva, or service. I should do some of it myself. But I think there also can be service, and spiritual practice, in doing just about any non-harmful job well and conscientiously, or mindfully. “Buddhists have regarded manual labor (even cleaning toilets), as essential to enlightenment for a thousand years.” (Mindfulness and Meaningful Work, forward by E. Callenbach.) I don’t know if using a keyboard is manual labor, and we certainly are not including Enlightenment or toilet-cleaning in the business plan, at least not in detail, but I’m convinced that engaging in the world of work and business is an opportunity to practice.
I recently read a story about two Buddhist monks who wondered if it was okay to smoke during prayer time. They each asked their superior. One of them got yelled at, but the other was allowed to smoke. The scolded one asked his fellow monk how this happened. His friend told him that he simply asked the superior, “Would it be permissible to pray while I smoke?” As Jean Kinkade Martine noted in her essay, Working for a Living, “Maybe this is the kind of care my work needs. To pray while typing, while answering the phone – would it require a different kind of praying?”
Some day I’d like to write a book about this, not because I know how to implement the eight limbs of Ashtanga or the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path in the world of work, but because I don’t. I went to a retreat once, where the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, talked about her book, Faith. She said she wrote it because she didn’t have any. By writing the book, she proposed to learn.
On the subject of this new Mysore company, I’m
realizing that at least there is service that can be done. For one thing, rather than splitting up
families, we’re reuniting them. Our
general manager will be a woman who felt compelled by her career to go to Bangalore and leave her child behind with her parents in Mysore. Two brilliant young men, one who will head our
accounting and tax department, and the other who will run the legal departmen, also left their families to find their fortune in Bangalore. Now, all three of these new employees are happy to
be able to return to their homes, without sacrificing their careers. We expect to see this story repeat itself
hundreds of times as we grow.
We’ll also be helping to raise the local wage rates and standard of living, as we hire away people from other companies who don’t pay as well. Although some locals have told us we are crazy to do the following, we are also going to be giving employees shares in the company. Not a radical concept in the West these days, but here it seems unheard of.
It’s also worth noting that
everybody in our U.S.
offices who is affected is being promoted, not fired. The “non-professional” staff are becoming
paralegals, and the lawyers are being freed up to practice more law, and to do
so under less time pressure. I know, you’re probably thinking, lawyers are
not exactly underprivileged, much less oppressed, so who cares? Well, speaking as a lawyer, I think that
given the enormous amount of unhappiness that lawyers are able to inflict, it
is better to have happy lawyers, so they don’t take out their misery on others.
Some good will be done for our clients too, in the way of cutting costs and improving quality. As those clients are therefore allowed to grow, I would hope that their employees would benefit, rather than be trashed. At least that's our model.
I know that none of this is exactly eliminating world suffering. But I think that if we can make our clients happy, and get a lot more of them, without compromising our way of doing business, it could be a little step forward.
If Shakespeare were around today, he might say “all the world’s a corporate cesspool.” So if a company can succeed while doing some good for its employees, its customers, and hopefully its customers’ employees, I wonder if that might be just as valid as other kinds of service. Or maybe I’m just trying to convince myself. In any case, the work I’m doing makes me feel alive and engaged.
Kahlil Gibran wrote about work in The Prophet, using much more lofty terms. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I can even come close to living up to his words some day: “When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. To love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. All work is empty save when there is love, for work is love made visible.”