‘What the Heck…’ is about living one’s life intentionally

Ravi Venkatesan reflects on how we need to make deliberate choices about who we are and what we do, rather than simply being carried along like a piece of driftwood.

‘What the Heck Do I Do with My Life: How to Flourish in Our Turbulent Times’ is an epiphanic ode to the hustlers, achievers, and the people who seek to define themselves and their professional persona in this changing yet exciting times. Business leader, author, entrepreneur, and currently UNICEF’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation, Ravi Venkatesan reflects through this book on how people need to live life more intentionally, making deliberate choices about who we are, what we do, and how we live rather than simply being carried along like a piece of driftwood. The Growth Mindset is an excerpt drawn from the book. It is very well written and flows very close to our day-to-day life conversation. It delivered the message in a very simple yet profound manner. This is a thoughtful and immensely powerful book, with well-explored subjects. What is often missing is the “how” of trying to understand and act on a life reset that can shift us to a more meaningful and fulfilling tracks. There are also cultural overtones to our life experiences. For most Indians, a good education leading to a strong career is positioned as the epitome of personal and societal success. But these external benchmarks and societal pressures are not easy to overcome.

Book cover of ‘What the Heck Do I Do with My Life: How to Flourish in Our Turbulent Times’ by Ravi Venkatesan.

This book considers a range of options for where meaning might lie for us. It is anchored around a discussion of quite meaningful activities: love, family, work, friendship, culture, politics, nature, and philosophy. Most are well-known; the point isn’t to identify entirely new sources of meaning so much as to try to evoke and explain some familiar choices. The options should provide orientation, enabling us to find our preferences or—when we dissent—to design alternatives. Our world will change more in this century than in all of human history. This change will be driven by many factors, including technology, climate change, demographics, and inequality. Such extreme change is throwing up unprecedented opportunities and creating an “adaptive challenge” for individuals, organizations, and societies. Those who can adapt to a fast-flowing, complex, volatile, and uncertain world will flourish. Those who cannot suffer greatly. There are clear signs everywhere that we need new ways to think about the world and our place in it. 

Our old ideas about education, lifestyle, success, and happiness no longer work. 

How is work changing? 

How can you know what skills will be useful when the jobs of the future are still being invented? 

Will ‘jobs’ even exist or are we moving to a world of projects and gig work? 

How do you make sense of all this and more? 

And then finally, ‘What the Heck Do I Do With My Life?’ 

Author Ravi Venkatesan writes in the book: 

“Psychologist Carol Dweck draws a distinction between two internally consistent sets of beliefs, which she calls the “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset.” People with a fixed mindset have a fundamental belief in nature rather than nurture; they believe that the attributes that matter, such as intelligence, talent, personality, and character, are what you are born with. Success means showing you have plenty of these, which leads to a tendency to want to always be the smartest person in the room—the know-it-all, the precocious genius. The effort is for the less talented. Failure is a problem because it shows you are incompetent. Therefore, failure is something you must avoid at all costs, which means playing it safe and never taking on big challenges.

When people inevitably encounter failure or setbacks, it is devastating because it affects their identity and self-worth. Feedback is criticism. The locus of control of their lives is outside of them; when things don’t go their way, they are victims and need to find someone to blame. The success of others results in jealousy and feelings of inadequacy. Therefore, they have a consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated by asking questions like: ‘Will I succeed or fail?’, ‘Will I come across as smart or dumb?’, ‘Will I be accepted or rejected?’ and ‘Will I feel like a winner or a loser?’

Ravi Venkatesan makes the case that successful adaptation in the new century requires a “paradigm shift,” a different mindset, new skills, and new strategies. Ravi also reflects on how we will need to live life more intentionally, making deliberate choices about who we are, what we do, and how we live rather than simply being carried along like a piece of driftwood. The author wants to say precisely that stable jobs will be something that will be relevant to fewer and fewer people. However, some will still stay with an organisation and grow with it. But, generally, given the extremely uncertain and turbulent environment, companies will have more flexible work arrangements with a stable core of permanent employees but use contractors, consultants, and gig workers. They will also constantly have to drive up productivity, which means steadily culling less productive employees. They will have to reorganise and transform, which again means convulsions for employees. He further clarifies that in the book, which we can understand from an employee’s perspective, it may feel like a game of musical chairs, and one day the music stops, and you won’t have a chair. So, he says it’s good to prepare yourself for this—to see this as a game and play it as a game—and be prepared to be self-employed.  We also understand that, since we are living longer, we will need to be prepared for many more transitions and for a day when no one wants to employ us because we are too old! This will happen to every one of us. So, the gig economy is already here for more and more of us which is not a bad thing. Once someone prepares themselves and gets used to it, it can be much more liberating. You are more in control of your life, your time, what you do, and who you do it with. It’s just a whole new paradigm. He writes all this in a very holistic way. At the end of the book, Ravi beautifully writes about success. “Success is a delusion unless you define it for yourself.”

He writes, “When you measure your life by someone else’s definition of success, it tends to be subjective, fleeting, and relative, and therefore, unsatisfying.”

No matter what I had achieved, in every dimension, I could see others who were even more successful. I knew people who were seemingly happier, more sorted and accomplished, richer, more famous, or more powerful.

He makes us understand that “success is subjective because it lies in the mind of the viewer.” You may consider someone successful; I might have a different view. That is because we may have different metrics for measuring success. ’ 

We go through all our working lives, enslaved by our careers and chasing a dream of success defined by others. The realisation that happiness and self-worth are not linked to our jobs often sets in too late.

The book highlights the rapid pace at which the world is changing—driven by factors such as technology, climate change, demographics, and inequality—and the need for a new “paradigm shift” to view the world and our place in it. Sharing tools and strategies to implement this shift, Venkatesan shares insights across diverse facets of living and working in the 21st century, such as the importance of adaptability to our changing environment.

Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bangalore-based Management professional, Literary Critic, and Codirector with Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be reached at ashutoshbthakur@gmail.com