Start, Middle, Finish…and Beyond

A wise man once told me how important it was to experience a product in all phases of it’s life – Start, Middle, Finish. Each has unique learnings to offer. As my 13 year tenure at Microsoft comes to a close and I step into the Beyond, these learnings are more in focus than ever before, and with them comes a tremondous amount of gratitude for Microsoft, her people and for myself for this brilliant journey.

13 years ago I showed up at Seattle’s doorstep with sweaty palms, ill-fitting jeans and hope in my heart. I was going to work at Microsoft! I was going to have my own apartment and bank account and a real paycheck! I was going to be free!

As I made my way through immigration, and subsequently through grocery stores, shopping malls and other establishments, I was struck by how everyone around me sounded and looked like people in movies and TV shows I’d watched in Pakistan. They felt different, almost unreal.
They spoke English but the words didn’t make sense to me. How does one know that when someone refers to “Alien registration line”, they’re referring to me? How does one answer “How’re you doing?” without knowing the cultural context for that question. How does one know what “happy hour” means? Doesn’t every hour hold within it the possibility of happiness? How does one know that “assisted living” is not for everyone who feels the need for assistance? After making many public mistakes, I learnt the basics at a superficial level and that was enough. The goal was not to assimilate but just to get by. I also made my world very small because less interaction naturally implied less chances to be humiliated and found out as the outsider.

And then there was work. I knew how to work hard. I knew how to solve problems. I knew how to learn new skills. The fire in my belly fueled me to prove to others that I deserved the chance I had been given, and prove to myself that I was capable of surviving independently. In those early years, Microsoft wasn’t just a place of business for me, it was a place of safety and understanding. As we Microsofties like to say, I understood “what success looked like”. I chased it with every ounce of energy I had and got rewarded for it without ever having to ask.

4 years into my life in Seattle, it appeared I’d “adjusted” well into the Microsoft and Seattle culture. But if you looked closely, you would see the extreme isolation and imbalance I carried within me.

The realization that I’d made a more or less permanent life decision didn’t register until a few years after I moved to the US. In these years, I had learnt to survive (without being found out) and excel at the job I was hired to do but I had no idea how to thrive and bring joy back in my life. It’s ironic that the process of getting to joy was a painful one, because it required demolition as much as it required rebuilding. It all started with the acknowledgment that I had made it. That there was no going back. That hiding away was not a life-enriching choice. That I must answer The question: Who Am I? and more importantly, Who do I want to be?

So much of who we think we are is defined by our environment that when the environment is completely changed, we are left with more questions than answers about the core of our identity. I revisited every belief I had about myself – faith, morality, values, relationships, passions, ambitions, hopes, fears, accent, physical appearance, mannerisms. Each one was tried on and whatever didn’t fit any more was thrown out wholesale and replaced with question marks. Think Extreme Makeover: Personality Edition.

The brevity of this summary is in sharp contrast to the enormous amount of effort, heartache and soul searching this phase represents. The hardest part of the process was the loss that came with it – loss of ideas that felt like home because they’d been within me for as long as I could remember; loss of people and community because re-inventing myself was at-best discomforting (because the people in my life had to re-learn how to relate to me) and at-worst deeply threatening because it challenged the beliefs they still subscribed to but I had given up. A part of me doubted if this was the best strategy given that going through it, I felt more loss and isolation than I had before. But there was a stronger, deeper voice within that urged me on. I have learnt to trust this voice and that’s been a key learning.

In my personal life, it meant breaking up with my ex and losing several friendships but finding new friends and deepening old friendships to a level I was unfamiliar with, evolving my faith and learning about other belief systems, becoming very clear about my values, investing in my emotional well being by committing to work with a therapist, emphasizing the importance of looking good and being fit, taking up hobbies that I’d forgotten I loved (like travelling and photography) and most importantly, getting my first tattoo (yes it’s clichéd but I’ve always been a sucker for ink :))

At work, this stage represented a change in roles and more importantly a change in outlook. I was no longer proving points. I was pursuing knowledge and ambition and doing it unapologetically. I was no longer interested in trying to be good at things I didn’t enjoy but to be great at things I did. This is also the time that I became a people manager and I’m incredibly grateful for that opportunity. It was a forcing function for me to engage with people because I felt responsible for them. Since it was in the context of work, I felt more empowered to learn the skill of relating and consciously building positive relationships founded in empathy and focused on outcomes. My reports over the years have complimented me about the effort I put into being a people manager. What they don’t know (or at least didn’t know before this blog post :)) is how instrumental their presence has been for me to learn life skills that come very easily to others but haven’t to me. I’m clearly the beneficiary in these relationships.

I believe we are socially conditioned to look for failure in every ending. I’ve had several people ask me what the failure in my relationship with Microsoft was. And the answer is, there wasn’t one.
The last few years in my life have represented self-acceptance. At the same time there are still many question marks for which the answers evade me. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the last 13 years, it is the power of environmental change and the wormhole of learning and growth that comes from it. In a small way, I’ve tried to create it by travelling to remote parts of the world every year and it’s always increased my understanding of myself and the world. However there’s something unique about persistent environment shifts and that’s where the decision to switch companies stems from.

Microsoft has never just been a place of business for me. It has represented an opportunity to change the arc of my story and the course of my life. It has represented home away from home, a place of safety and fairness, an environment that makes sense to me, and a hub of human connection that’s defined by kindness. The last week has confirmed what I’ve known all along about this company. It has a heart. It values people. Everything from my send-off mail to the generous out-pouring of sentiments and support that my leadership, team and partners have shown in the last week has made me an even bigger fan than I’ve been over the past decade.
I declare this Finish a success.

Come back in 2014 and I’ll have something to say….

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