Discovering and committing to one’s passion

Explore, and then commit to your passion. Forget about a Plan B. Only then will you know if it’s right for you. Listen to Kiran Bir Sethi and her son Raag Sethi in S02E05 of TAMG

Founding Fuel

How should one discover, pursue and commit to their passion?

Mother and son duo Kiran Bir Sethi and Raag Sethi discuss that in Season 02, Episode 05 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.

From being a designer, Kiran pivoted to being an educationist in her 30s and started the Riverside School. It’s been 20 years already and Kiran says, “I think somewhere, eventually, the passion has to become all-consuming for you to continue to have the stamina to keep doing it. You have to be worthy of a passion.”

Raag—born to celebrity parents, renowned billiards player Geet Sethi and award winning designer and educationist Kiran—saw close hand what passion and commitment looks like.

He tried his hand at billiards and at education, supporting his mom's venture, but could not find that inner voice that said these were his passion—until he ventured into music and founded Compass Box Studio in Ahmedabad.

Edited highlights from their discussion:

Planting the seeds of what’s possible

Kiran: A lot of who I become today, I attribute to my maverick parents, and my even more crazy brother and sister. My father was quite a unique sort of personality. From him, I learned what is possible. He was the first machine tool designer of India, he went to IIT Kharagpur, in the very first batch. But the father I saw was this maverick creature. He didn't have any compartments between passion, profession and interest.

He gave us that opening and that opportunity to delve into crazy stuff if you wanted to.

There were two interesting anecdotes on how the seeds of what is possible were planted. The first, I am told, is when I was all of two years old. We used to go for our monthly dinner at Koshi's restaurant in Bangalore, which had a jukebox. Apparently I loved this particular song and I would ask my father to put 25 paise into the jukebox. And I'd start dancing all through the restaurant… And [my father would say] let her dance. That freedom and that trust in your child was possibly the first introduction of what I could be.

The second is even more telling. In grade seven, I must have been around 11 or 12. We had to do a project on animals. All the other girls started taking about a goldfish or a butterfly. I decided no, we have to study a snake. There was big drama at home. [But my father] came with me all the way to the other end of Bangalore to buy that snake… All he told me is, you have to look after it. If you cannot look after it, we must let it go.

That's my understanding of upbringing and how important those early memories are to shape your worldview.

Raag: One of the earliest memories I have about growing up in a family like my family—I mean, with you as my mom, and of course Geet Sethi as my father—was that anything that I wanted to do in terms of exploring something, there was never no as a response to that.

I remember coming to you and saying I want to try tap dancing. And [you said] fine. Let's find out what the clothing looks like or what kind of shoes you need to wear. And you also organised a show for me.

With Dad, I remember listening to music. My dad was heavily into hi-fi systems back in the day. We used to just quietly sit down and listen to music. I owe it to that experience to my appreciation of music right now.

No pressure of tuition classes; allow exploration

Kiran: We wanted to talk about the pressure of tuition classes. It wasn't an expectation... academics is important, schooling is important, [but it was equally important to] just explore.

Raag: Parents fill up a kid’s free time with tuitions and sports classes and stuff. I don't remember having tuition classes. It was always ‘we've got some free time, let's do a drama together. Let's do a fashion show together.’ It was always filled up with that. I think that started the whole process of if I want to try out something, I will try out something and there's no barrier to that.

Kiran: It's less now, but in my time if you happened to be good in studying, you worked hard to become a doctor or an engineer. And I became a designer. There were these really interesting Punjabi Aunties who would tell my mother ‘she's going to do design, she must not be very good in studies’.

At no point did my parents ever put that 'log kya kahenge'—what will people say—pressure onto our choices.

That freedom, not being weighed down by what would people say, is a very liberating feeling.

You get that courage deeply within you to try out and test.

The gift of a gap year: Breathing space

Raag: I was allowed to select a bunch of different subjects. But in the process of doing all of that, I was confused. After school, I was not ready to apply to college. Because I was not sure what I wanted to do.

My perception was that I have to apply to college knowing what I need to do—be it engineering, medicine, law, music or education.

I took a gap year after high school and worked with [Kiran] during the DFC (Design for Change) programme, working at school full time, trying to get a sense of if education is what I would like to do.

Taking a gap was very unusual at the time.

[It gave me some] breathing space. Okay, I don't know what I do right now, but it's okay, I just need some time to try out different things.

Kiran: The idea of that linear, stereotypical journey that we all embark on—go to school, finish high school, immediately go to college, get a safe job, get married—you have all of these preset milestones.

To break a preset mould you need to feel confident that I am not losing anything. I keep saying it's a gift, and not a gap [year]. ‘I don't have to fall into this pressure of conforming to somebody else's view of who I am.’

Raag: When we finally decided which college, I was going to go into, I was still not sure what I wanted to major in because I had such varied interests. Fortunately, the American liberal arts college education allows you to go in undecided and figure it out once you're there.

But I remember thinking that I was a year behind everybody else.

Now looking back, I don't see it that way at all.

Kiran: I remember we used to have these conversations and say, 'when will you find something?'

I don't want the audience to feel that it's always great to meander. I think there's a deep amount of work ethics that needs to come in. The substitute was not that I could do just anything and be lazy about it.

Raag: one question I had at that time was that I'm choosing something right now in college, would that predetermine what I would do for the rest of my life?

In my column, I mentioned witnessing two different kinds of passions—like my father, which is all consuming and obsessive right from the start. He knew what he wanted to do and continued on for 40 years. And then I had you who, while the passion was there for design, it changed and morphed from having a design studio to starting a school in your mid-30s. If that was my benchmark of mid-30s, I knew I was in no hurry. if I don't have it figured out by 22-23, it's okay. I just need to work at it.

The pivot—manifesting it into actionable passion

Kiran: I didn't know I was going to do that pivot. It was because of you.

In some ways, I was being prepared for this. What Geet got at 11 and then went on to do that for 35 years—an all-consuming obsession—in many ways, I was also getting prepared to be able to finally start this journey. It's now been 20 years of running the school.

I think somewhere, eventually, the passion has to become all-consuming for you to continue to have the stamina to keep doing it. You have to be worthy of a passion

Does following a passion, need a Plan B?

Kiran: How did you find Compass Box and music in times when people still look at music as a hobby? How did you convert in your head the idea that it's not a hobby, that it is a purposeful profession?

Raag: This goes back to the question, does following a passion need a plan B? There was no plan B for dad. There was no plan B for you either.

The moment you have identified that there's this plan B, you can very easily [exit] your path.

Kiran: it's only that deep commitment to an idea that allows you to really figure out whether you're right for it.

Raag: I've only been in music for the last three and a half years.

Again, having parents who are so passionate about something definitely helps. Because I know first-hand what obsession looks like. When I started seeing that trait in myself, I kind of knew exactly what it was. I knew when I was spending more time in music, spending hours that I couldn't even count.

Kiran: You're saying that the idea of seeing it being lived out on a daily basis, where you saw the failures, the successes, and you saw the struggle. Most people don't see that. The long hours, the sleepless nights, and the loss of sometimes confidence. You need stamina.

Raag: Interesting thing is I did succumb to that pressure when I was 12-13—pressure in terms of society telling me, typically, the son follows the father's profession.

I remember thinking that it was an obligation for me to do that, even though dad never insistent that I should play billiards.

I played semi-professionally, you could say at age 12. I played at the Gujarat state open, I played at some exhibition matches in Mumbai. And I realized that this is not [for me].

That was a pivotal moment for me also, when I finally realized, I am not cut out for this.

Dad and I played an exhibition match in Mumbai. At the end of that match, there was a Doordarshan interview. And the first question the interviewer asked me was not, how well did you play? How many hours of practice? None of that. The first question was, when do you think you'll beat your father? The 13-year-old me got sick and tired of all this comparison. I just said, I don't think that's ever gonna happen, because I quit.

Reflection—the learnings from their journey

Kiran: Three things that I have learned: One is, growing up, if you are released from this ‘what will other people say’ pressure, you give your child the freedom to realize their authentic self.

Two, if you do find whatever you are doing, you have to be really worthy of it. You have to commit to the long hours. You need stamina. It's not just the fun and stuff.

Three, you talked about no hurry. It needs to bake and find its way.

Raag: People expect a sprint, a quick dash to the finish line. Everybody who has had an obsessive passion knows that it's a marathon

The role of qualifications or certifications

Raag: When I built the studio, I had no background in audio engineering, or in music production.

Everything that I needed to know was available on YouTube. I also read a lot about what I needed to achieve.

My journey was just a series of questions that I was answering for myself.

Does it help? Yeah, I'm sure it helps. But I'm proof of the fact that you can [do] something as specialized as music production without a degree.

Kiran: Mastery doesn't have to come from a degree. Mastery comes from your own pursuit of understanding.

Raag: When somebody approaches me for a job, I'm not going to ask for the degree. I'm going to ask for their body of work.

Kiran: All of us have ability, but excellence is a learnt trait.

Ability... you live it out in the first two years of your life. You go from sitting, standing, crawling, laughing, and all in the first two years.

And then we send them to school and say, now, listen, now sit down. Now keep quiet. And we start rewarding compliance. For 15 years, we do that. And we then get surprised, 'Oh, my God, why are our graduates so unprepared for life?'

Our responsibility to children is to ensure they have the opportunities to test out who they are. And it comes from exploration and iteration. But it's a difficult task, because it's so much easier to teach for compliance.

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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