Nepali Times Asian Paints
Strictly Business
Undervalued work


Writing a column, even if it is every fortnight, is a struggle. In less than 600 words, should I write (without putting you to sleep) on Big Picture topics such as the rate at which remittances are causing inflation in Nepal or why global oil prices are starting to come down and what that means for NOC? Or should I focus on undervalued issues such as what works for a Nepali manager to run her business well or how an attack on a particular newspaper is an attack on all our freedoms?

The perpetual student in me has discovered that while Big Picture writing may help burnish one's image as a thinker (even if few read, and even fewer understand it), it's the pieces on undervalued issues that seem to resonate well with most readers.

One reason is that not many choose to write them. Because of a short supply, the few that do get published receive disproportionate attention from readers. Anyone, for instance, can ridicule the government's negligence and incompetence in broad terms. But few can and want to explain how such inactions have affected, say, one particular Muslim Nepali family displaced by last week's Kosi embankment collapse.

This idea of work that's initially undervalued but which ends up being crucial for success later on extends to other spheres of life too. Take Barack Obama's career. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he went to Chicago to work as a community organiser. As a rule, the brightest law graduates in the US do not start their professional lives in some of the poorest neighbourhoods. For them, full-time community activism is an undervalued activity.

But 16 years later, Obama's community organising skills, performed nationally with additional effort and luck, broke the political machinery of his party's more seasoned rivals. I doubt whether Obama would have been where he is today had he joined his classmates in signing up for "billable hours" with white-shoe law firms in New York or DC. Undervalued work, in effect, became a robust platform for Obama's eventual nomination to be the next US president.

On a recent visit to Shanghai, I met Nepali professionals who have done well. What struck me was that hardly any of them were from Kathmandu. They started in China as scholarship students from Parsa, Dang and Chitwan. Ten years ago, when most Kathmandu-based Nepali students went abroad for studies, they went, as they still do, to the usual places: the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and so on. Studying in China was an undervalued idea.

A decade later, with the rise of China on the global stage, Nepalis who studied engineering and sciences there now have the sort of skills that are on the demand list of every global company: fluency in Mandarin and English, familiarity with China, technical degrees and an ability to work hard and learn things fast. I wouldn't be surprised if the first pukka Nepali dollar-billionaire eventually emerged out of Nepalis in China.

The trouble with undervalued work or idea is that it's hard to know in advance whether engaging in it will yield success. That is why, for most people, the mantra is always: Play safe, don't rock the boat and follow the herd. But for a few entrepreneurial ones, whether in academia, politics, the arts, business or sport, spending time and effort on first doing the undervalued work of their respective domains for the sheer enjoyment of it, trusting their instincts that somehow things will turn out all right, mastering the required skills, and then, with a dose of luck, using that experience to propel themselves ahead seem to be one interesting way to gain a sturdier command of success.
Framed that way, maybe writing columns need not be such a struggle.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)