I had spent twenty years studying in schools, a college and a university. It was a very different world. You survived in that world by very different rules. It was a world of make-believe, of noble and persuasive pretensions. Knowledge, it declared, was power and it was that power that it pretended to disperse. Most that entered its portals, however, came out feeling powerless against the juggernaut of the universe that waited for them. There what mattered was money, position and connections, and few cared what you knew or didn’t.
I had acquired the requisite cunning of the academic world: I gobbled selectively some prescribed texts, regurgitated appropriately in an examination hall and received the worthless certificates employers wanted to see. I had learned nothing of what I should have learned: how to work in a group, what food I should eat, the way my body works, how my city worked, the patchwork of castes and tribes that makes up my society. I had studied economics, but knew nothing of stock exchanges, bank collapses or international commerce.
Now I was beginning my next twenty years in business. It took me a few years to realize that it was another world of make-believe, of noble and persuasive pretensions. Business, it declared, was there to serve society, to produce goods people needed, offer services that made life comfortable, build houses children could live in and buses or cars adults could travel in, pay taxes to government that it can use to help people, make life wonderful all around.
I was taking my first step in the new world now by walking into a giant tire factory. My first job was to work in a car tire assembly shop where you took the metal bead, the rubberized fabric and heavy rubber tread and put it together on an assembling machine. You stood next to a rotating metal drum, and one by one added the different elements until you had a complete raw tire. I did this for eight hours until my shirt was wet with sweat and my arms ached. It took me four days to reach the output that every assembly worker is expected to reach to keep his job.
I also spent a few days learning the trade at the prep shops where rubber was mixed with chemicals to create the rubber compound and the rayon or nylon was rubber-coated. The place was cooler, but the giant mills were a perpetual threat. The slightest carelessness and a worker could lose his arm in the huge grinding rolls.
I worked only a few days at each of the jobs to learn the process and understand the machines. But I understood something more. I understood how ruthless were the demands of industry, how reckless was its roulette with the health and safety of workers, how impervious to the long-term welfare of the majority of its employees. My work at the factory, though mostly uncomfortable and sometimes painful, had done me the favor of giving an insight into how easily the most reputed organizations turn fiercely exploitative.
A few months later, when a position opened at the headquarters, the English factory director called me into his office and told me that he had decided that my talents would be better used in the fashionable city office. The office was slick, modern, comfortable. Everybody wore a suit and a tie; fancy suede shoes seemed to be in vogue. The company offered free cigarettes at every meeting, free drinks at every party and free lunches at the frequent group conferences. There was suavity to every dispute and even reprimands were administered with grace and muffled voice.
Business surely wore a new face in the city, different from the one I had seen in the outlying factory. But I had learned my lesson. I began to observe carefully and watch the subtle undercurrents of rivalry and hostility. However camouflaged, the pettiness and insidious contention of commerce started getting increasingly observable. Thus started my sustained interest in organizational pathology: the ills and evils that stalk all human organizations, from trade to commerce, hospitals to universities.
When I moved later to diplomacy and eventually consulting, I began to put to good use what I had learned to watch for in industry. Those first awkward, hesitant, painful days, sweating in the floor of tire shops, had not been in vain.