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Being a leader at 18 is a great thing, but here’s what you miss out on

A slightly edited version of this article was first published by YourStory on May 16, 2016.

All of the few years of my early adulthood were different than most around me. After close to six years of being in some kind of a leadership role, I recently found myself in a position where I felt I was “one-among-many”. Ten months of this new life have given me as much learning about life, people, and myself, as those six years did. I might never have learned all this, if I hadn’t made the decision to give up all that I’d built, and study again.

Setting the context

I founded a web venture one month shy of my 18th birthday, in first year of college. Suddenly, I found myself leading a nation-wide team of talented, enthusiastic youngsters. When I was 20, my team won its first international award, and I had already spent a year mentoring young writers, often spending 13- to 14-hour challenging but rewarding workdays. By 21, I had the second award, some press coverage, and by 22 I had quit, and was teaching kids in a government school in a disadvantaged community, as part of a leadership development fellowship programme.

When I went to study a postgraduate course in July 2015, it was a new life. It gave me a chance to introspect life around me – life as an equal, a life that I had last known when I wasn’t old enough to know life. Suddenly I saw how all these years, people around me had always looked up to me in some manner or the other. I never really had enough people who I could call friends, who treated me as an “equal”. Here, I was no more the editor, counsellor, the coach, the teacher, and community leader.

Here is what I learned.

1) At times, you must step back. As glorious as leadership at 18 and its achievements may sound, it must be relinquished at a point in time, to reflect at the world from a fresh, grassroots perspective. Leadership taught me a lot about life, people and tough situations, but early adulthood also needs space for a whole lot of other learnings.

For me, this time gave me ample space to read a lot and understand the world better. I travelled solo and spent time going out, finally exploring great friendships. Full-time enthusiastic leaders are prone to getting consumed by the work they are trying to do. Stepping back for a while and climbing down the ladder of success and stature helps.

When I say stepping back, I do not mean a short break, but completely leaving that work and coming down to the lifestyle of “the ordinary”. There are always other ideas to explore, new things to build, learn more ways to solve the world’s problems – all that early leadership makes you oblivious to. Early leadership may even make you ignorant of all of the world’s problems, your own skillset, and your preferred life path, thus limiting you. I have loved the anonymity and ordinariness this year – I know this will help me come back stronger.

2) Leading like-minded people gives an incomplete picture: Before I came to j-school, I had spent six years with people who wanted to impact the world, and were doing everything to push themselves in their work, learning, and thought process. Now, I was suddenly around people who got upset at even the slightest challenge, who had little interest in conscious learning because, well, “I am who I am”, but still spent their days complaining about the unfairness of the world. They did less, but expected more. For leaders, it’s the reverse.

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Initially, I was baffled by the idea that our youth could be so comfortable with ordinariness of self and with misfortunes of the world. I thought I had seen a lot – right from the best people (the capable and the concerned) and their working style, to a grassroots disadvantaged community in north-east Delhi (the incapable but the concerned). I suddenly realized there existed a category “capable but apathetic” – which means most of our youth, who are victims of our poor education culture. A leader is incomplete if he cannot lead the last category.

I spent this whole year understanding the other side. Early-in-life leaders, who spend time with like-intentioned colleagues, may never know this unless they face the real youth. The real youth, made apathetic, disillusioned, and ordinary by what our school system offers, has more stakes in the world the leader is trying to build.

3) The ordinary ones spend their lives fitting in. I hardly know anyone who doesn’t have a goal in life. But most end up leading ordinary lives, doing work they don’t really like, for someone they don’t like, looking forward to the weekend rather than Monday. I realized exactly what sets leaders apart from the ordinariness around them. Each point of difference boils down to this: ordinary people spend their lives trying to fit in.

Ordinary people get awed or intimidated by the good, but they are influenced only by the mediocre. Leaders, on the contrary, get influenced by the inspirational, and they lift the mediocre. Unfortunately, getting awed and intimidated helps nobody. Ordinariness breeds more ordinariness. The Facebook news feed is enough evidence.

Leaders are in control of their lives. Ordinary people give the control of their lives to external influences: what they do, how they spend free time, what they talk about, how they speak, the words they use, what goals they have, how they derive their happiness and how they treat people around them – I know a lot of self-proclaimed independent youngsters who derive these heavily from others.

While living life a certain way is definitely not a problem, the expectations are. An ordinary life cannot give extraordinary results. Plus, for a leader who has lived in the illusion that youngsters are his partners in trying to create impact, experiencing the real world is a necessary exercise.

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These are some of the key learnings of my new life. I am glad I quit at 23 what I created at 18. There’s so much to learn and understand, and going to the top early in life needs a humbling neutralizer pretty soon – so that you can do even better things later.

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