Rumi, Roger, and I

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there”. These words were written by Rumi the, 13th-century Persian poet.

Did you know that these words were written after Rumi fell in love with a man in the later years of his life?

These lines remind me of my EMC experience. 

And here is why: the EMC gives us mid-lifers a safe space to look within and do something forbidden and rebellious by looking at ourselves.

We look at ourselves without our conditioned roles of titles, nationality, cultures, industry, partners, children, and all. In the world where the roles define us, learning to look and love ourselves is an act of rebellion.

It was June of 2014. After writing 14 gut-punching and deeply personal essays I flew down from Hangzhou, China, where I lived, to interview with Professor Roger Lehman for the admission into the Executive Masters in Change programme.

An audacious dream, I was by no means a typical business school candidate and was struggling with imposter syndrome.

I met Roger at the reception of the campus where he came to fetch me. He hugged me as if to say he had known me all my life, which may be true as many of the essays were autobiographical - all the valleys and peaks were all on paper now.

The interview was at the courtyard at the Singapore campus and I sat across him as he asked me questions about my life, remembering details of all those essays without a reference of notes. Surprisingly, he'd even read between the lines. This was not just a feat of memory but a kind act of generosity. I had been feeling unseen and this was the kindest thing anyone could do for me then.

An hour into our discussion he asked if there was anything that I wanted to say or ask him before we concluded the interview.

I told him that I had always considered myself invisible and someone who would not amount to be much so I had nothing to lose. He should not feel obliged to admit me just because I wrote the 14 essays and came from Hangzhou for the interview. For an underachiever like me, it was a celebration of my existence that he thought me worthy of this meeting. I’d never had the opportunity to step into such a ‘fancy’ business school and this was perhaps my first and the last time.

Looking back, I was trying to protect the kind professor I’d just met from a potential reputation crisis if he bet on me.

Failing to hide his smile, he said in a visibly feigned serious-professor-voice that I should go and to tell whoever mattered to me that the interview went well. I did exactly that, and I should’ve added that I was ready to change and be prepared for Devika 2.0. This was the beginning of a ride!

Fast forward to the last module I thanked him over lunch for ‘seeing’ me. If there was one single instance other than the birth of my children that changed the course of my life, it was that hour in the courtyard. A real teacher would see your un-manifested potential. Without Roger, this evolving 2.0 version myself perhaps wouldn’t have even existed. Both Roger and Erik provided a safe transitional space to experiment with our potential selves, and what a privilege it was.

Our lunch conversation concluded as he smiled and said to me: "For you to live your full potential you need at least two people to see you and believe in you. You just need one more person."

This sums up my career as a coach.

I pass this value on as I show others what I spot in them: all the potential they have been conditioned not to acknowledge and show them how to see it for themselves.

And yes, I did step into another ‘fancy’ business school within months of starting the EMC programme, coaching several executives around the world. I have written three books, one of which is published and available at one of the best business schools in the world: INSEAD.

I’ve stepped in to never turn back: this is a life-long relationship.

Like Rumi, my cohort came out meeting the world on a field without judgments for ourselves and others. This field lies amid deep internal reflections and seeing others with a night vision lens.

If I may speak for everyone: we in later years have learned to love something forbidden too, ourselves, our whole selves. The persona, the shadow, the realised and the latent potential, along with all the bits and bobs that make us whole.