Insight From India: Career guidance from unlikely places

Patrick Berry, The Levison Group

A few days ago, my wife, Laura, called to tell me that she had some great news. Her

sister, Elizabeth, had been accepted as a volunteer with an Australian-based non-profit organization helping impoverished communities in Kolkata, India. The non-profit focuses on providing access to sustainable energy, which is a cause Elizabeth is passionate about. She will be spending four weeks in India this summer before starting graduate school in the U.S. this fall. Like Laura, I was also excited for Elizabeth.

That wasn’t Laura’s only news. Laura reminded me that she has several vacation days she needs to use or lose (since I had no vacation days accrued), and she boldly announced her decision to use those days to travel with Elizabeth to India to aid in her acclimation to the subcontinent before her volunteer session began. My feelings were a little less enthusiastic regarding this news.

Laura proclaimed it would be a great opportunity for her to go on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and spend valuable time with her sister. We’ve always prioritized travel, and both appreciate the immeasurable benefits and pleasures that come with exploring foreign places. After all, she knew I would be supportive — between the two of us, we’ve been to Southeast Asia, East and Northern Africa, several countries in Europe, and most of the United States. And anyway, we have a month-long trip to Japan, Thailand, and Cambodia planned for this upcoming fall. India was one place in the world where we had never gotten a chance to visit, but had always been on our list. So I’m happy she gets to go, and she promised we’d go together next time.

However, my supportive (if envious) feelings quickly dissipated.

First, because the trip was only 46 days away, she asked me to help them plan. Those familiar with my past columns know that planning events (be it weddings, parties, or vacations) is far from my forte. To put it bluntly, it’s the bane of my existence. I agreed to give it my best effort, knowing that Laura and Elizabeth’s intense work schedules didn’t allow them enough time to properly plan their excursion, and meant they were counting on my help.

As I should have anticipated, the planning did not go well. Both Laura and Elizabeth had major difficulties obtaining visas, which put the entire trip in jeopardy. Laura also needed an updated passport, and our first attempt was promptly rejected by the U.S. Department of State and sent back to us with requests for additional paperwork. We had to pay for expedited shipping, and there was still no guarantee that it would arrive in time for the trip.
Then, I inadvertently booked a flight from Dehli to Agra on the wrong day. There were no other flights available for the date they needed, putting Elizabeth at risk of being late for the start of her volunteer program and the two of them being stranded without a hotel. Finally, I booked a hotel in the wrong city (a particularly dangerous one), and by the time they realized my mistake, there were no open hotel rooms in the correct city.

Much to my chagrin, the sisters were quickly moving towards the “nervous wreck” stage by this point. And I didn’t enjoy the way they were looking at me. Their entire trip was on the verge of collapsing, and we would be out a lot of money and frequent flier miles. However, despite my ineptitude at planning, I knew there was one thing I could offer: the ability to stay calm and work to find solutions.

Early in my career as a lawyer, I received a critical piece of advice from a senior partner at my firm. She told me that the most respected attorneys are those that remain cool and collected under pressure, even while everything around them appears to be falling apart at the seams. She told me that having this attitude gives confidence to your clients and helps reduce their anxiety, even when “everyone and everything is on fire.”

I recognize that, in the big picture, trip planning snafus are not amongst the most serious of problems that one faces in life (the phrase “first world problems” comes to mind). But, regardless, I’ve found that partner’s advice helpful in myriad difficulties I’ve encountered, both in life and my early years of law firm practice. So, I did what I could to calm Laura and Elizabeth and, one by one, we worked through each of the problems and found resolutions. By staying calm and looking for creative solutions, I was able to help avert the crisis. The trip was back on track.

Once the planning was done, though, I realized there was another reason I had less than positive feelings about this trip. The thought of two blonde women traveling through India together, without a group or tour guides, frightened me. I tried to tell myself that these were two worldly, intelligent, strong-willed women, but I couldn’t shake my feelings of trepidation for their upcoming journey.

Why was I feeling such anxiety about their trip? It felt ridiculous. I reminded myself that Laura and I had spent time in places that were probably significantly more dangerous than the cities she would be going to. We lived together for years in my hometown city of St. Louis, which is a perennial standout among the “most dangerous” cities in the U.S. We’ve travelled to third world countries together. Laura often travels by herself for work to places like Philadelphia, Detroit, and the south-side of Chicago, and I’ve never felt nervous in any of those scenarios.

But, something about this trip felt different. Maybe it was because the destination, India, was so exotic and unknown. I wasn’t sure what they were getting into. As a risk averse transactional attorney, I didn’t like that feeling (particularly because I assumed liability in helping them plan the trip). Maybe it was a loss of control. I had done what I could to make sure they had flights, hotels, tours, etc. in order. Still, I wouldn’t be there to make sure everything went well. Again, that bothered me.

So, to make myself feel better, I indulged my natural lawyer instinct and researched the country – including its legal system. Unfortunately, this heroic act of diligence didn’t exactly put my mind at ease. In addition to bizarre laws on the books (e.g., you need a permit to legally fly a kite), there are more troubling concerns. For example, the Australian government warns that the legal processes in India generally take several years to conclude.
Foreigners arrested for certain offenses may be imprisoned for several years before a verdict is reached in their case. And don’t get caught with a “satellite phone” without permission – the penalty for doing so could include a fine and/or imprisonment. Then there is a generally poor treatment of, and respect for, women. Indeed, India is the country of “Sati,” an outlawed, but not completely abandoned, custom in which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of force or coercion, is burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Needless to say, traveling abroad, like much of the advice we give our clients, does not come without a degree of risk. What is important is to recognize the risk, accept and appreciate it, and then commit fully to a course of action. In the course of researching draconian Indian laws, I stumbled across a column written by a noted travel writer, Jonathan Kalan. The column’s closing remarks summed up this principle perfectly:

“There is no reason to fear the unknown. The great unknown presents great opportunity — to understand yourself, others, and the beautiful world we live in. If a place seems dangerous, or an excursion treacherous, do your homework. Seek the reality behind the perception. Make your own calculations, and venture beyond the comfortable. Your adventures, travels, and even daily life will be filled with much richer experiences.”

So, whether you’re mapping out a litigation strategy or a ten-day jaunt through a third-world country, keep three lessons in mind: First, focus on staying calm and collected, no matter how chaotic the situation becomes – your colleagues and clients will thank you for it. Second, do as much due diligence as is necessary to fully appreciate and asses the risks of your endeavor or proposed course of action. But once you’ve assessed the risks and settled on a plan, charge forward at full steam without fear or reservation. And most importantly, if you go to India, don’t fly a kite.


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