Below is a full script of the TEDx talk
I’d like to start by showing you a picture of my office.
This is one of my offices. I call it my office because this is part of my work. I sit here talking with our team members, discussing work, about the problems we face and how to solve them. Some of our discussions have led to far reaching consequences in our work and in trekking.
This is just one of my offices.
I want to show you a picture of my other office.
This is also my office. My more permanent office in Bangalore. It’s here that I sit at a desk, I work on a laptop, I have working hours, the whole gamut.
Shuffling between the office and the mountains, I have learnt a few lessons about how we must look at work.
And hopefully, by the end of what I tell you, you might see work how I see it too.
First, let me introduce myself.
I am Swathi Chatrapathy. I head the digital team at Indiahikes, where we are doing some extraordinary work in defining the future of trekking in our country. I do not know if you know but Indiahikes is the pioneering organisation in trekking in our country. It is also the largest trekking organisation.
I use the word ‘extraordinary,’ because trekking is basically walking from one place to another. It is the first thing mankind learnt to do. Yet, in 2020 we are still defining the future of trekking. We are exploring new routes and setting standards in safety, sustainability and even experiential learning. And we’ve been doing this for the past ten years!
I also have a Youtube show called Trek With Swathi, where I dive deep into the trekking world, sharing trails, tips and trek talk. It is India’s most popular trekking channel.
I also write a column every Thursday where I share opinions and news from the world of treks. I have been writing this column without fail for three years. Over 100,000 people subscribe to this column.
Through my work, I’ve been fortunate to learn from the great outdoors and from an organisation with a lot of legacy.
And I thought I’ll take this time to share three of my biggest learnings with you.
Just before I started this work 5 years ago, I was looking for a job. I had just quit my job at a well known newspaper, I was looking for something to keep me occupied, fit my skills and help me earn.
It was by sheer coincidence that I came across Indiahikes. A friend of mine went on a trek in the Himalayas and came back raving about the orgsanisation she went with. She told me they have a website with terrific content, and that they may be looking for content writers.
And so it happened. Indiahikes was five years old back then. Somehow, with my writing skills and possibly more with my convincing skills, I bagged the job and started working there
My first few months at work were fraught with confusion in my mind.
Confusion because I didn’t know what to do at work. I knew a bit of content writing, but was completely new to the trekking world. Nobody told me what tasks to do, not the founders, not my seniors. Instead, they gave me a certain vision to work towards and told me to take charge and grow my own work.
I was confused. This was very different from what I was told to do in my earlier job.
In my previous job, my editor had told me exactly what to do everyday. Write one story a day. Edit one page a day. She either accepted my stories, or scrapped them. There was no inbetween.
I couldn’t make sense of such ambiguity.
But within three months of joining work, something happened that changed my approach towards work completely.
I went on my first Himalayan trek.
Just like any first timer in the Himalayas, I was taken in by the mountains. We were camping in the wilderness, I could see snow-capped peaks at a touching distance. It was surreal!
The trek was going well, until I reached the summit of the trek.
Once I reached the summit, I had a few minutes to myself. There was a small shrine at the top. I sat beside the shrine, looking at all those big mountains in the distance.
And for no reason at all, I started to cry.
Frankly, I felt silly. Because physically, I felt good, mentally I felt accomplished, I’d come such a long way! And yet I was crying. This was absolutely uncalled for. Where were these thoughts and emotions coming from?
When I heard footsteps behind me, I quickly wiped off my tears. I couldn’t show myself like that to anybody.
But that moment still stays with me.
It was my first realisation about how powerful a trek could be. It had impacted my mind, my body and my spirit. And it had a similar effect on all my fellow trekkers. I could see it in their talk and their demeanour. The trek had touched them deeply.
And then I understood what one of our visions was. It was simply to get people to trek. Didn’t matter where, when or with whom. But to simply trek because a trek is such an impactful journey. It can change your life.
Once I understood the vision, my entire approach towards my work changed. I knew exactly what I had to do.
And that’s how I learnt my first lesson on how to look at work.
It was the exact opposite of what I had been doing all along. I had been blindly doing my daily tasks, not understanding why I was doing what I was doing.
At Indiahikes it took me months to understand the why. It also took many conversations, many questions plus experiencing the vision itself for me to understand the why.
And I notice that most people don’t give their work this time and effort to understand the why. They begin to think their organisation doesn’t have a why.
But the truth is, every organisation has a why. Whether a start-up or a large MNC. Without a reason why, the organisation wouldn’t exist.
In my case, once I understood my ‘why’, I could clearly see what I had to do. I had to take trekking forward.
Soon after coming back to Bangalore, with my why clear in my mind, I started a video show. On my show, I would talk about trekking trails in the Himalayas. I would guide trekkers on how to trek, where to trek, and share tips.
We did this consistently for months. Sure enough, the show grew in popularity amongst trekkers. Trekkers across the country were using the videos for guidance. It was something that didn’t exist in this world.
Two years later, I was on my way to another trek, when I learnt my next lesson on how to look at work.
It was an overnight train from Delhi to dehradun and exhausted from the day’s travel, I was fast asleep.
It was in the early hours, I heard someone whispering my name. I thought I was dreaming. But when I realised it was real and remembered I was in a sleeper train, I woke up with a start!
A young lady was whispering my name.
She was telling me “Hi Swathi! I’ve seen your videos. I’m on my way to the base camp for my first ever trek and your videos helped me prepare for my trek so well. Thanks a lot!”
With just that sentence, she disappeared and got off the train.
I didn’t know how to react. Of course I was elated that someone had recognised me.
But what struck me was that she had identified me with my work. She knew I was Swathi from the trek videos. Swathi from Indiahikes.
Little did I know back then that this was the first of the many recognitions to come.
I would always think this is such a niche world, just a handful might watch the videos. And yet I was so wrong.
People started identifying me at so many places. The airport, the railway station, restaurants, the streets, my own apartment, even people on trekking trails in the middle of nowhere.
They would all approach me and say “Hey, you’re Swathi from the trek videos right?”
It was embarrassing, yet overwhelming to be recognised for my work.
And it taught me a big lesson.
Making my work my identity gave me a certain drive that I never had before. I was suddenly looking at how I can get better at my work and make a bigger impact. It made me more ambitious.
And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.
I thought about the most successful CEOs and COOs in the world. Sheryl Sandberg, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai. All of them have made their work their identity.
Even here, when I look at other TEDx speakers who are here, they are known and identified by their work.
And I’m telling you, you don’t have to be in a field where exposure is easy, like writing or film making. Even as a techie or an architect, sitting in your office, you can make your work your identity. The best way to do that is to get very good at your work.
It takes time, but this identity scales up. You first identify yourself with your work, then you get better at it. Then your own organisation identifies you with the work, and finally, the larger world around you begins to identify you by your work.
And this is what propels your career forward. And this identity is what will make you a person to be reckoned with.
But gaining this identity takes time and effort.
With all the time and effort that was going into my work, many of my peers started putting in this thought about work-life balance in my head. Which is what I want to cover in my third learning.
All my friends swore by it! They had very strictly separated their personal lives from their work lives.
And I was struggling to do that, because my work made a big difference to my personal life.
And then something happened that gave me my answers.
I was in Mysore to attend a wedding. And the wedding turned out to be on a Thursday.
As I mentioned earlier, I write a weekly column every Thursday.
So that Thursday, I had to send a mailer.
Which meant, I had to write the mailer, proof-read it, put it up on our email management tool, test the email, and send it out. And I had to do everything before 2 pm.
Thankfully I had my laptop with me. So I sat there, typing away, occasionally looking up to greet relatives. Every now and then, I made some small talk with people. My sister, husband, cousins were hovering about me, keeping me company, sometimes teasing me for working at a wedding.
After some time, I noticed something strange! All these people who were teasing me about my work started offering to help me. My sister helped me ideate better for my mail. My husband prood-read it. My cousin tested the mailer. It’s like they had almost taken over my work!
Watching them, I realised how well they knew about my work, how involved they were in my work life. They had been a part of this 5 year journey of mine at every step. And they loved my work as much as I did!
That’s when my doubts about work-life balance started to disappear.
I realised the concept of work-life balance was highly misunderstood.
The stronger the integration, the more wholesome your life becomes.
Just like my family had helped me with my work, my mentors and colleagues at work would also emphasise on the importance of having a high quality personal life. They constantly pushed me towards living a healthy, fit and enriched life.
This beautiful exchange of work and life made my life so much more wholesome. And I cannot imagine work-life balance in any other way.
Which brings me to my conclusion
Over the past five years, I have been trying to dissect how to look at work.
And these are three of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt.
First, once you understand the why, your life gains purpose. You find meaning at work.
Second, when you make your work your identity, you become ambitious. You get better and better. Very soon you are recognised not only at your workplace but even outside your sphere of work.
And finally, when you reach a collaborative work-life balance, your life becomes so much more wholesome. Work is no longer laborious. It is a labour of love.