First, a nod to a legend…
Legend has it Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti dedicated his whole life to completing just two works of art – two sets of bronze doors. The first set, depicting scenes from the New Testament, took Ghiberti 21 years to complete, and the second set, depicting the Old Testament, took 27 years. Doors so beautifully and exquisitely sculptured, they are recognized as masterpieces of the early Renaissance period, and were labeled by Michaelangelo as the Gates of Paradise.
When I first read about Ghiberti, I couldn’t help but marvel at the level of dedication it must take to spend a lifetime on a singular work of art. I’m no artist, but this led me to wonder what would happen if we were to approach our lives and our life’s work, whatever that maybe, like a work of art. What if we were to patiently, diligently and lovingly keep chipping away at our doors so that by the end of it what we are left with is a stunning masterpiece?
The first half of my life (call it my first set of bronze doors) has been a series of adventures. I was born into a simple, middle-class family. I grew up listening to several stories of my parents’ humble beginnings. My father grew up in a small village in Haryana, India with no electricity, running water or toilets. He realized at a young age that his only ticket out of poverty and to a life of dignity would be a good education, and so he did whatever he could to make sure he got one. Whether that meant going to school in torn clothes, straining his eyes every night to study by candlelight, or even doing menial labor and odd jobs to help support his parents, both of whom were illiterate, and his seven younger brothers and sisters.
My father’s hard work and dedication did pay off as he went on to join the highly selective Indian Foreign Service and build a 35-year long successful career as a diplomat (ending most recently as an Ambassador of the Indian Government in parts of Africa). Thanks to my dad’s career, I grew up traversing four different continents, living in places as diverse as Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S., along with a brief stint in Tanzania.
First, there were two stark contrasts that really hit me hard as I was growing up. One was the difference between living in some of the poorest parts of the world, like Bangladesh, to the richest, like the U.S. The second was the difference between how my family lived and how my relatives lived, especially on my dad’s side. Every time we came back to India to visit my dad’s village was a reminder of how lucky I was to be living the life I was living. Unlike some of the people closest and dearest to me, I did not grow up having to travel long distances to go to school, find a toilet or fetch water. As a result, I came to live life with immense gratitude. I knew from a young age my life was not something I could take for granted. If I had more, it meant I had to do more.
Second, my family lived by the credo – “charity begins at home.” Time and again, I watched my parents save every single penny to support their extended families, helping to pay for things like their education and weddings. As I got to observe first-hand the powerful impact this had on the lives around us, I couldn’t help but develop a deep reverence for coming from a place of giving, no matter how much or little you had.
Third, my global upbringing became a mixed blessing. As I got exposed to different cultures, I became more open and sensitive to different ways of thinking and living. Yet, at the same time, constantly moving around and not feeling rooted in a single place or culture meant I always struggled with my identity. I was always trying to fit in, always searching for a sense of belonging.
It created an enduring existential crisis, which I was ultimately very thankful for. If it weren’t for the sources of discontent in our lives, we wouldn’t feel compelled to answer such deeply profound questions as one’s place and role in the world. The nagging need to answer those questions sent me on a life long quest to discover my personal source of happiness and meaning.
These were strong forces, but then they fell into the background when I moved to New York…
At 19, I moved to the most exciting city in the world, New York. To the casual observer, the next 13 years of my life, which is how long I ended up staying there, would have looked idyllic. I had a financially rewarding and promising career on Wall Street. I got an MBA from a top business school. I had exciting creative pursuits on the side as I did everything from winning beauty pageants to professional modeling, dancing, acting and public speaking to having my own entertainment show on a national TV network that allowed me to interview Bollywood celebrities every time they passed through New York.
Truth is I had no clue if most of these things were what I really wanted or if I was doing them to fill a void inside me. It seemed too painful and daunting to try and figure out who I really was. It felt so much safer and easier to just put on a mask and do what the world believed were markers of success. But the thing with constantly seeking external validation is that you are always living from a place of fear, and if you wear a mask for too long, it eventually leaves you gasping for air.
Despite seeming to have it all, I felt deeply uncomfortable in my own skin. I had a gnawing sense that I was selling myself short, that I was settling for a life of comfort and security instead of challenging myself to honor the values that had come to define my childhood. The voice inside me asking me what more I could do with my life kept getting louder and louder until I could not ignore it anymore.
And so at 32, much to the horror of my family and friends, I quit my cushy corporate job 2 months before my annual bonus was due, and decided to move to India. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, only that I was ready to start figuring out my place in this world.
I did fear that I may be jeopardizing my professional career, not to mention my personal life at a time when social convention would suggest I seriously think about settling down and not run away to some far off land. But, greater than my fear, was my belief that I owed it to myself to figure out how I could create a life of meaning and purpose, or I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Once I got away from my fast-paced life and world in New York, and found more space and time for contemplation, I sought every avenue possible from spiritual retreats to life coaching to reading every notable personal development book under the sun, to cultivate more self-awareness and find my personal truth. As I dove deeper and deeper within, I began to gradually make the shift from external validation to self-acceptance, from seeking significance to seeking connection, and from getting to giving.
I realized what I was really looking for was a deep sense of love and belonging, and that it was there for me all along, within myself, provided I was ready to embrace complete and total self-acceptance. And, that there was no mystical formula for happiness and meaning. It was simply a matter of living from my highest values, and using my strengths to be of the greatest service to others.
I finally came to a point where I realized my spiritual odyssey was much bigger than me. All around me, I saw women who are also striving for more – to be more, to do more, to give more. I felt I could play a small part in making their journeys just a little bit easier. While I don’t have all the answers, I have learned a lot along the way about happiness, success and mindful leadership, which I have a strong yearning to share with other women, and I want to invite other women to share their stories and their greatest learnings. And that led to the birth of Shenomics: a platform to help women live and lead from within, from that place which is the highest, most beautiful and most true.
So here I am. I’m not sure how the rest of the story will unfold. The only thing that I am sure of is that I have my tools in hand, one for personal mastery, and one for service to others, and I am ready for start chipping away at my own set of bronze doors to create my very own Gates of Paradise. I hope you will join me.