Meet the professionals who juggle a great day job with a successful creative career and won’t give up either

Trudging for kilometres through the Bharatpur bird sanctuary on a bitterly cold winter morning, carrying cumbersome photography equipment and blinking back tears, Aarzoo Khurana came to a decision. This was not for her, she told herself. She would turn back at the earliest. That resolve lasted for about two hours, until the fog began to lift and she saw the images of sarus cranes she had captured. “The pictures were mesmerising. Shooting at 1/2000th of a second, I had caught a moment that would have vanished before the naked eye,” she says. That moment she knew she wanted to explore wildlife photography further.

Aarzoo Khurana, 26, New Delhi
Two Hats: Lawyer; wildlife photographer
Balancing Act: Plans forest trips & photography workshops according to court dates

While Khurana was convinced, her parents weren’t. How would she balance a demanding profession like law with an equally demanding vocation like wildlife photography, they wondered. “After a while, when they realised I was serious about it and that my photography was getting recognised, they came around,” says the 26-year-old lawyer, who has sold images to publications like National Geographic and conducts photography workshops. Five years since that revelatory moment in Bharatpur, Khurana is beginning to make a name for herself in wildlife photography and enjoys a wide following on social media. But she has no intention of giving up her legal career. “I enjoy litigation. People tend to complain about their jobs and even I do occasionally, but I am happy in both fields. Nobody forced me into either,” she says.

“People usually complain about their work but I’m happy doing both. One is a getaway from the other,” says Aarzoo Khurana.

For most of us, managing awith our personal lives is a task we are convinced does not leave us enough time for much else — except, well, binge watching. At most, we have hobbies we indulge in and Instagram about. Khurana belongs to that rare tribe of people who not only manage but enjoy two successful, often disparate, careers. While one career, the more mainstream one, is typically more lucrative, these practitioners find a differentfrom each and don’t want to forsake one for the other.

Harish Sivaramakrishnan, 40, Bengaluru
Two Hats:
Chief design officer, CRED; lead vocalist of Carnatic rock band Agam
Balancing Act: Most of his time is spent on work at CRED; song-writing happens Jan-March, rehearsals on weekends

The most recognisable face of this intimidating balancing act is, arguably, Harish Sivaramakrishnan. The Bengaluru-based head of design at fintech startup CRED is not just a rock star at work but also one, literally, in his avatar as the long-haired lead vocalist of the Carnatic progressive rock band Agam. Its concerts, which blend the intricacies of classical music with contemporary rock, are sold out while its YouTube videos have racked up lakhs of views and scores of comments from fans of “Harishettan” (“ettan” means elder brother in Malayalam, Sivaramakrishnan’s mother tongue).

“I keep my art and work in two separate buckets. That is how I stay committed to both,” says Harish Sivaramakrishnan.

Ask Sivaramakrishnan, who has simultaneously created a name for himself in music and UX-UI design, how he manages it all and he shrugs it off. “I don’t have that much work in art, really. In a busy month, I might have six concerts which are not a lot compared with the established musicians who might be out 20 days a month,” he says. Most of his time, he says, is spent on his corporate job since that’s where the bulk of his income comes from, despite Agam’s popularity. “I’ll be honest. I have been, and continue to be, motivated by money,” says the BITS-Pilani alumnus, adding that his strong “middle-class conditioning” stopped him from pursuing a career in music after college. About his successful corporate stint, he says: “I was fortunate enough to end up in jobs where I could do things I didn’t mind doing. And I believe I’m good at some of the things I do in my professional career, so I enjoy it.”

This very lack of dependence on art for livelihood gives multi-careerists the freedom to make choices that might not have been available to them otherwise, like being selective about performances.

The Essential Checklist to Manage Multiple Careers.

Neville Shah, 39, Mumbai
Two Hats:
Executive creative director, Ogilvy; stand-up comedian, with a special on Amazon Prime
Balancing Act: Prioritises by deadline. If he has a big weekend show, he does 2-3 open mikes during the week. If a client deadline is coming up, everything else takes a backseat

It’s a choicehas been able to exercise. The executive creative director at Ogilvy, who has been doing stand-up comedy for about a decade, does not have to chase brand deals or be on the social media content-creation treadmill. “Having a corporate career gives me the flexibility to pick and choose,” he says. Shah, 39, first got behind a mike to make people laugh at the suggestion of one of his professors in the US, where he was doing a writing course. Now, he can’t imagine life without it. Nor does he intend to step away from advertising: “I would miss advertising if I became a full-time stand-up comic.”

“I’ve said no to job offers where I was told I would not be able to do standup comedy. I’ve been very clear about that,” says Neville Shah.

What has helped him manage both, he says, is support from his office. “Ogilvy is very cool about it. If I have a show in another city on a Friday night, they let me take the afternoon flight out,” he says. That’s not all. In the last two years, there hasn’t been a single meeting with a new business client where, Shah says, he wasn’t introduced as someone who does stand-up comedy, an acknowledgement of his other career.

Apart from the support of family, this kind of organisational backing is key to successfully navigating two careers. Khurana, who was working with an advocate on record in the Supreme Court, says her seniors understand her pursuit of photography. “But, of course, not at the cost of work,” she adds.

“When you have two or more careers, people think that you are not serious about any of them. Multicareerists need to make clear to their employers that their second or third careers can provide value” says Kabir Sehgal, author, composer & entrepreneur.

Indeed, to win the backing of their workplace, these employees make sure their passion does not eat into their productivity. Shah, for instance, does not accept out-of-town gigs on weeknights since that would interfere with his commitments to clients and deadlines. Khurana has sacrificed forest trips that clashed with important court dates.

New York-based Kabir Sehgal, a passionate advocate of having more than one job and a multi-careerist himself (he’s a military veteran who juggled a job on Wall Street with writing books and producing records before turning entrepreneur with Tiger Turn Produc
tions), goes a step further. “When you have many careers, people will think you are not serious about any of them. They believe one career detracts from the other. Multi-careerists need to make it clear to employers and colleagues that their second or third careers can provide value,” he told ET Magazine in an email. In many instances, he says, multiple careers are mutually beneficial.

“I have always believed that a mind with more than one passion has the ability to create something unique. Such individuals may harbour insights that might be missed by others” says Kunal Shah, founder, CRED.

CRED founder, for one, is convinced that Sivaramakrishnan’s passion for the arts benefits the organisation, since creativity fosters. “I have always believed that a mind with more than one passion has the ability to create something unique. Such individuals may harbour insights that might be missed by others,” says Shah, explaining why he backs employees’ decision to manage dual careers. Sivaramakrishnan, who was part of Shah’s previous startupas well, agrees that while he prefers to keep his music and corporate life in separate buckets, his art heavily influences his work in design.

For others, a dual-career path can lead to serendipitous forks. Engineer and theatre practitioner Badarivishal Kinhal is one of them. His former manager at Robert Bosch Engineering, senior vice-president Sri Krishnan V, says he handpicked Kinhal to assist him in leading the business unit of innovation and incubation because of his involvement in theatre. “Innovation is about connecting dots that are seemingly unconnected and that can only happen when diverse people come together. All of us are qualified technologists but I was looking for people who can bring in another dimension,” says Sri Krishnan, himself a violinist who performs occasionally.

Badarivishal Kinhal, 37, Bengaluru
Two Hats:
Cofounder of legal tech startup CORD; theatre actor, director and founder of 10-year-old theatre company Tahatto
Balancing Act: Diligently follows a schedule every day; focuses on whatever he is doing at that moment; meditates and runs to improve focus

Kinhal, who cofounded the theatre group Tahatto in 2009, has directed and acted in a number of plays. This entrepreneurial experience of founding and running an independent theatre company for a decade nudged him towards his new career as the cofounder of legal tech platform Centre for Online Resolution of Disputes (CORD). “I’m from a typical middle-class family in Bengaluru. No one else in my family has tried their hand at entrepreneurship before,” says Kinhal, currently in the middle of directing a play online and dealing with the avalanche of work Covid-19 has brought in its wake to CODR.

“When I’m doing theatre, I’m not thinking about anything else. If multiple things occupy your mind, it becomes difficult,’ says Badarivishal Kinhal.

Similarly, award-winning scientist Sharada Srinivasan says it was possibly her interest in Bharatnatyam, which she learnt from the age of 10 and her subsequent exposure to art and culture, that influenced the turn her career took. Instead of working in mainstream areas like theoretical physics after her degree in engineering from IIT-Bombay, the Padma Shri recipient shifted focus to the application of science and technology in cultural heritage, specialising in archaeometallurgy and archaeology. While there are some synergies, she cautions about mixing up her two fields. “When I’m in the laboratory trying to do an analysis, I’m totally into that. We need to recognise the boundaries and appreciate working within those boundaries without confusing the two,” says Srinivasan, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, who used to have a dance performance every couple of months till about a year ago. Like many dual careerists, she says one is an escape from the other, which is why it’s good to keep the two separate.

Sharada Srinivasan, 56, Bengaluru
Two Hats:
Award-winning scientist specialising in archaeometallurgy and professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies; Bharatnatyam dancer
Balancing Act: Practises dance every day for an hour or so; tweaks schedule if a performance is coming up or if a paper submission is due

How do these folks manage time? Kinhal says he calendars diligently, slotting everything, including family time, so he does not end up committing to something he will have to later refuse. In contrast, Shah says, in advertising it is impossible to streamline hours and he prioritises according to deadlines. But they all agree that it is important to focus on whatever they are doing at that moment.“When I’m doing theatre, I’m not thinking about anything else. If multiple things occupy your mind, it becomes difficult,” says Kinhal.

“It is like a pendulum , but that is what I like about it. If I am too much on one side, I miss the other,” says Sharada Srinivasan.

Having multiple balls in the air does lead to anxiety at times. Khurana often feels she’s spread thin. Like others in the same boat, she has come to terms with the fact that the inability to devote herself fully to one field will hinder her growth. “Being slow and consistent is the formula for people like us.” Srinivasan occasionally wonders what it might have been like to focus on just one career. Then she adds, “But that wouldn’t be me. I would not be able to function that way.”

None of them would have it any other way, because each field has given something the other would not have. Kinhal says theatre has made him more self-aware and open-minded. For Shah, stand-up provides an outlet that advertising does not while simultaneously allowing him to get better at advertising. Srinivasan says that if she had only been a scientist, she would not have had the opportunity to perform at the Brihadeeshwara temple during World Heritage Week. “It was one of the most special moments of my life. I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” she says.

For those who perform on stage, that thrill alone is unparalleled. Says Sivaramakrishnan. “There are two things about being on stage. One, I’m able to present my art. Two, the fact that a bunch of people chose to come and listen to my music when they could have been doing anything else. To me, that’s insane.” And that, he says, is what keeps him going.

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Upskilling Need Of The Hour

Upskilling is the order of the day whether it’s because your industry has been affected, you’ve been asked to leave or simply just considering a change. And the new normal means that certain skills will be highly sought in the post COVID-19 world, given that many of our usual ways of living have changed. Employees all over the world are compelled to adjust to digital infrastructure and work remotely. This requires acquiring new skills – not just technical but also soft skills to make a smooth transition into the new way of working. Lakshmi Mittra, VP – Center of Excellence (CoE) and Clover Academy, Clover Infotech, shares the top skills that in a post covid world: