Imagine a stock market analyst appearing on CNBC advising traders to “stay long on L&T”, “short M&M”, and “buy IRB on dips”.
Given enough of dirt we may have thrown at such analysts in the past, I am sure what kind of a person you may be imagining. Someone dressed in a crisp, formal shirt and tie, and sharing his expertise on accumulating stocks.
Maybe someone like this…
Now, imagine seeing the same person clad in a loose khadi kurta, sporting a French beard, wearing a hearty smile, and advising you to give all your stocks away.
I am sure you may not be able to imagine that, given that there’s a negligible probability of a stock market analyst appearing in this second avatar.
But maybe, he’d look like this…
Well, that’s Siddharth Sthalekar for you – the analyst in the first picture above, and the one with a hearty smile in the second picture.
You may have never heard of Siddharth – even I did not know him till a few months back when I met him at a meditation sitting at a common friend’s place – but here is a man who inspires many…
…for the simple reason that he gave up a super-high paying job in the stock market for a career in the field of “kindness”.
Siddharth has been a great inspiration for me ever since I met him, and I thought his story would serve an inspiration for you as well. Thus, I requested him for an interview for Safal Niveshak, which he readily agreed to.
What is more, despite recovering from a wrist pain, he turned around the answers to my questions in three days, which was amazing.
So here is a man who kicked away the lure of money to serve kindness to his fellow beings, in a freewheeling interview for Safal Niveshak. I am sure you will be a happier being after reading through this interview.
Safal Niveshak: Siddharth, please tell us about yourself and your journey from IIMA, to being on the stock market trading floor, and now to devoting your complete time spreading kindness. What do you do now, what caused the transition, what were your fears starting out, and how do you feel now?
Siddharth Sthalekar: I graduated from IIM-Ahmedabad in 2005, and found myself in the Indian capital markets.
2005 to 2010 were years of tremendous flux – from one of the largest, most extravagant bull rallies to the most deflating of crashes. No doubt, it was a tremendous opportunity to learn – especially as the head of a derivatives desk for Foreign Institutions and as the first Indian team to setup Algorithmic trading in India.
No doubt it was an exciting time, but as the days and weeks wore on, I kept asking myself how I’m truly creating value.
Sure, there was a service I was offering, but I found myself driven more and more by personal gain, as opposed to genuine contribution.
As time wore on, the question of ‘creating value’ grew deeper. I believed I had dedicated a large part of my life to developing my skills and accumulation but it was not bringing me true joy.
Somewhere, I wished to focus on values that I idealised – of trust, and unconditional giving.
With this intention, my wife and I travelled and met several communities, individuals and organizations for 6 months, before finding ourselves serving in the eco-system at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Over the last three years, our intention has constantly been to ‘not look for answers’ since that is rooted in a right, or wrong. Instead, we decided to approach our time as an ‘Experiment in Generosity and Faith’.
Today, I would say I hope to create value wherever I might be – whether I’m a volunteer, husband, son, or even if I find myself offering financial advice to someone.
SN: You left your job in 2010, when the financial markets were going through a great upheaval and investors were paying a heavy price for the greed of the previous few years. Did such a situation – of seeing greed all around – have any role in your decision to leave that field? Could you share with us some of the foundational beliefs that have evolved in your life that led you to make this decision to give up on your “money career” entirely?
SS: I distinctly remember watching Gordon Gekko in the movie ‘Wall Street’ when he uttered those famous words – ‘Greed is good.’
You could say it had inspired me when I was young to join markets. During the early days of my career, systems based on greed were bringing about such an efficient development in our country – especially during the ‘India Shining’ days.
However, as time progressed, I could see the flip side of models built on such values – especially in years like 2008.
While emphasis only on the bottom line, EPS, or P/E brought about dramatic growth, there were many questions that were begging to be asked.
Should 25 year old traders sitting in a remote location be dictating the values of companies that were trying to bring value in an Indian context?
The decline of America as an economic super-power brought many of those questions to light. I think, most people are realizing that India as a civilization has survived all these thousands of years, because it was designed on basic human values of generosity and one-ness.
The question is – how do we preserve those values, and balance development at the same time?
SN: During your transition from leading a life dealing with money (your stock market job), to now leading a life of non-monetary abundance, how have your thoughts on money changed?
SS: Initially, through my days on the trading floor, I developed this disconnect of sorts with money. As I saw people all around me looking to accumulate and hoard money, I began to hold judgements against wealth itself.
I once happened to read a passage by, the founder of the Findhorn Foundation in UK, who said – “Money is like electricity – you need to allow it to flow. It would be silly to hoard electricity, because it would end up giving you a shock.”
In essence, we must look at ourselves as trustees of money, not as its owners.
As I volunteered at the Seva Café, which is a Gift economy space, I saw money as a flow of energy.
In a space like that, you are continuously seeing the beauty of moving from Transaction to Trust, and how nature supports unconditional giving.
As I tried to move towards more and more trust-oriented situations, I found I was getting less attached to ‘money’ and trusted its flow. I found that my negative approach towards money was because I was upset with it’s incorrect uses.
By itself, money is not ‘good or bad’. When I let go of this belief, I could see how it could also flow to create beautiful things.
You realize that there are currencies working at different levels – Financial Capital, Social Capital etc. When we start giving unconditionally, we tap into these levels unknowingly.
For example, serving a guest at Seva Café might result in him talking to a friend, who ends up being a volunteer or makes food for other guests – which unlocks even more abundance.
This unlocking of Social Capital is what creates true sustainability, although our minds are always trained to focus on the ‘bottom line’ i.e., money.
Today, I wouldn’t say I’m living without money – I think money and other capital start coming towards you as you create value. However as trustees of money, we must keep it flowing.
SN: See around and you would find most people running after money as if this was the only thing that could buy them happiness – which we all are ultimately searching for in life. What are your views on true happiness? How can one achieve that?
SS: The fundamental assumption behind my earlier need for accumulation was that consumption makes us happy. Through my journey I found I had a job that paid me more than enough for amenities, vacations – it even offered me fame.
But as each one of these gifts was coming my way, I found myself asking what I was chasing. I found I was living a life primarily driven by consumption.
Economics assumes that man is driven by Consumption for happiness. However, I’ve started seeing that perhaps constant Contribution creates more sustainable states of happiness.
So you could say the switch that I made wasn’t so much about money or no money, but from Consumption to Contribution.
When I was at Seva Cafe I would constantly come across volunteers who were serving without any desire for reward – no remuneration, no CV points or fame.
Interestingly, I would see how their spirit of Contribution would ripple out into the guests, and they would want to contribute in their own ways. It made me realize that perhaps Contribution can be infectious – we have to create the right conditions for it to spread.
SN: Given the transition you have seen in your life, your spirituality must have been clearly an important part of your journey. In what ways, have your spiritual beliefs strengthened you for this journey and life?
SS: If by Spirituality you refer to an intention to work on Inner Satisfaction, then yes, a lot of my life’s journey has been driven by it.
Initially I would read a lot – from the works of Western Philosophers to Indian thought leaders like Vivekananda and Gandhi. In all the texts, you would find talk about the laws of nature and other spiritual concepts.
You could say the last three years have been an intention to experiment with these laws. Incredibly, when you see these laws functioning in practice, it reaffirms your faith in nature.
Through our various experiments in generosity, like the cafe or walking through villages and cities without money we were seeing time and again that we were held by basic human values that were inherent in everyone.
I would say spirituality is about identifying values you resonate with. They could be as simple as honesty, kindness, faith – and as much as possible, attempting to bring them into our lives, either as Volunteers or as Doctors or as Financial Planners.
To sum it up, Einstein put it very beautifully. He said – “Before we set out to do anything, we must ask the fundamental question – Is the universe a friendly place?”
I think our values can stem from this simple question.
If the universe is friendly, would I be looking to cheat it or gain from it? Or would I be using my skills to serve?
SN: What are some of the most important lessons about money, people, and society you have personally learned over the past few years? Did any of these lessons surprise you?
SS: Initially while at work, I remember being cynical because it was fashionable. I held negative biases about the government, the outlook for markets and corporations.
Especially after 2008, I often found myself offering a bleak outlook on the world. Everyone wanted to be the next Dr. Doom!
As I moved out of this environment, over the last three years, I came across various people who were very generous in their own way.
Someone offered us a home to live in as we volunteered. Someone else offered us their eleven year old Maruti Zen to drive. While volunteering, I also came across people from all over the world who were looking to create genuine transformation within themselves and those around them.
There was this one time we were blessed to host a group of 15 tenth graders from America. I was truly inspired by their genuine curiosity to learn about diverse communities and how they can serve. At night I was sitting with one of the volunteers and we were speaking about how there seems to be an emergence of beautiful people wanting to contribute from all around the world. I was surprised as soon as I uttered the words.
Just three years ago I was predicting doom for the world. But clearly the world couldn’t have changed too much in this short frame of time. Maybe it was just me!
On the floor at Seva Cafe I would always come across businessmen who would be telling me how they have served their communities in small ways. I would look at them and think – “If I had met this gentleman across the street in the mall, he would have probably been asking me for stock tips to get rich quickly.”
It was then that I realised the importance of how we looked at the world and accordingly where we choose to place ourselves.
I think everybody is inherently generous, but they act in accordance with their narratives.
We only have to hold the right intentions in our hearts to open the appropriate doors in theirs.
SN: What are the practical steps individuals can take to free themselves from their pursuit (and bondage) to money – even if they will never live entirely moneyless?
SS: One of the biggest beliefs I held was that I needed something big to make changes in my life. That something big was a huge sum of money, or an opportunity to create macro-level change or to be in a position to influence people.
Over the last few years, I realised that real change happened through small and consistent acts. However, my mind had been unwilling to see the beauty in them. I realised I didn’t have to wait for the right NGO to give money to, or the right project to come along so that I could be of service.
Sometimes we just have to step out of our comfort zones and we may find we can be of service by just listening to someone or by washing their dishes. Often, my wife and I would step out in the city with no wallets or phones but with only the simple intention of serving by engaging with people and using our hands. We found ourselves on incredible adventures of generosity across the city.
The impact of small acts of service always seems negligible but it begins to accelerate a change in us that takes us to some place beautiful. These small consistent practices may inspire us to serve in deeper ways or inspire those around us to contribute as well and through the ripple effect you begin to see how it manifests into large scale change.
SN: Are there any books that have helped you in your life journey so far? Can you name three that have guided you the most?
SS:Yes, here are the three that have inspired me a lot…
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- The Story of My Experiments with Truth by M K Gandhi
- The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
SN: Who has been your role model in life?
SS: I found my role models constantly changed based on my journey. In a way they inspired us to follow our own authentic path and be heroes in our own way.
Vinoba Bhave, J Krishnamurthi, Joseph Campbell, Ishwarbhai Patel would be some names who have accelerated the journey within me.
SN: How would you like to be remembered?
SS: I have not thought too much about this question. As much as possible, I try to focus on finding joy in everything I do. Rather than remembering me per se, I hope that the way I live my life might inspire someone to live their own authentic journey.
SN: Thank you so much Siddharth for serving a great inspiration for me and my tribesmen through your thoughts on living, kindness, and money. I wish you all the best for your future endeavours!
SS: Thanks Vishal for this opportunity to share my life with your readers!
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