The Pursuit of an Identity

Writing for oneself is a self indulgence. It’s like a cleansing routine that you want to have the discipline to do, but never have the time. Life takes its own course if you don’t steer it the right way.

There are many things I learnt about myself this year. One that I’m still internalizing is that ego is a debilitating instinct, and can frequently lead one down a path for the wrong reasons. I even have a story to show how that happened to me.

A Life-defining Chapter

When I left SoftBank as a VC, and joined Flipkart in 2010, I was their 40th employee. I did well to pick up the SEO tricks, but my real contribution was in finding the voice of the company that resonated with customers. This helped me grow the social channel from scratch, and the momentum began to pick up on Twitter and Facebook, where our reach was growing exponentially. Sachin once said to me, “You’ve built something extraordinary,” which seemed to echo the sentiments from a board meeting because I was soon inundated by calls and questions from the investors’ global portfolio. As a young company, our challenge was awareness – no one outside a few small pockets even knew about us. It was a snowball that was just beginning to show the hockey stick growth everyone loves to see.

Soon, however, we wandered off the clarity we had, and I was told to focus on the Affiliate channel. Wasn’t asked, was told. There were no performance reviews, no measurement of results, nor a formulation of what we were working backwards from. Whatever there was, it was in Sachin’s head. I’m at fault here, because I didn’t try to build the personal connection. I wish I’d done because I’d have felt easier pushing back when I was told to do something. As a person with a plan, and with views on how to get where we wanted to, being told what to do without a discussion became the most disempowering and demotivating part of work. It became a grind.

Thinking back after a few years, I realized that ego had prevented me from building a deeper relationship with the company itself. A few days after I’d joined, Sachin told me that an investor had said, “Oh a Stanford graduate, she’s can’t be the right person,” with the presumed suggestion that “hotshots don’t work”. Anyone who knows me would say straight up that I’ve never thought of myself as a hotshot. I didn’t give these words much weight then but these thoughts, expressed with innocent concern, can separate the employee from the company. I had a thing to prove that was distinct from others who were the right persons.

When work became a grind, I started to think less like a owner of the company, and more like an employee. I thought, “Hey, if I’m working so hard, I might as work for myself.” In reality, I was already working for myself, and had a great set of people who already had a great thing going. So, when I saw my ability to act cut down, I took it as an affront to my ability to think, and decided to leave to start my own company. This was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made, but one that I wouldn’t have really understood had I not spent the last five or so years at Amazon.

The Pursuit of an Identity

I did a lot of soul searching in the years after I left Flipkart. In working through the unsexy parts of building my own company, I developed a deep understanding of payments technologies and the ecosystem, and eventually joined Amazon’s Global Payments Platform in 2012. Ironically, this was where Sachin and Binny Bansal had first worked before starting Flipkart. Before I joined Amazon, I wrote to them asking if I could help them build a payments business and that I had an offer from Amazon, but they turned down the idea. I take a little satisfaction in having tried because it was the first point where I had shown that I was willing to separate my ego from my desire to work with the right people.

At Amazon, for the first time I saw what it means to have a customer-driven culture of ownership work at scale. In most cases, it allowed for both an opportunity to think for myself and to be intellectually honest, to develop and present my plans and ideas, and to be awarded for clarity of thought. Developing clarity is filled with painful toil, and it deserves the space we can give it.

I needed the space to be myself, but the Flipkart experience helped shaped my identity in another fundamental way. I live in constant fear, of failing in the next six months, and of not catching myself when my ego gets in the way.

As a child, I’d lived in constant fear of not meeting my parents’ expectations. Unmet expectations took away from my identity as a person, and fear of failure had been a driving force throughout my childhood. After I joined the workforce, I thought I’d finally made it. I was wrong, and I’ve spent the last 14 years “making it”.

I also fear my ego. Most startup environments, even the one I am in right now, are driven by individual personalities. The idiosyncrasies of a place like this can be empowering if they work in your favor, and disempowering if you let them work against you. This the air in which egos clash. So, I’m always on guard now.

What about tomorrow?

To steer life the right way, we want to find a way to judge our actions, so we know why we do what we do, and so we can be comfortable with ourselves. So we can be more intentional, less insecure, and more self-aware. That way, even if things don’t work out, you’re not upset with yourself. You’re not playing dice. Your intentional actions turn failures into more interesting stories. Sometimes they’re even life defining.

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