Recently my daughter, who is in year two at school, asked me the following question: "Daddy, what do you want to be when you grow up?" In her picturesque view of the world, going to an office to sit behind a computer screen and talking to people on the phone while downing cups of tea is not work.
She's probably right. Or maybe she asked me because I had decided to move on from the company where I was working. Where was I moving on to? Well, I'll come on to that in a moment. First, you can imagine the anxiety I felt at being asked such a question. As a 38-year-old, reasonably successful executive who has worked in several countries and led large groups of cross-cultural teams, I was being put on the spot. I felt like a contestant on the BBC programme Weakest Link, with my delightful daughter transformed into the ferocious host of the show, Anne Robinson. I was lost for words.
Abruptly my childhood ambitions flooded back. Astronaut, tennis player and inventor played ping-pong in my brain, clutching at old unused neural synaptic pathways that had been all but turned off for the past three decades. Ouch. It hurt. And then there was silence. I didn't have an answer. What do the old corporate warhorses do and where do they go when they are despondent with the system and the global economy reminds them of a visit to a local hospice?
Being fresh from the experience, let me tell you. It's best to stay calm and positive and avoid the sappy do-gooders. The first one I bumped into said something like "hey I'm really happy for you, man. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do what you really believe in". When I was almost out of earshot, I heard "that dude is nuts, what a loser, he's gonna take up tree-hugging soon". Thanks, pal.
The morning school run became challenging. I'm the only Dad consistently turning up in workout clothes. I do my best to avoid the sardonic questions from well-tailored, pinstriped fathers in their oxford brogues that have just been shined by their maids for two hours that morning. "Found a job yet, mate?" Worse still, comments from some mothers: "Oh, John and Jane had to go back only last week after he lost his job - shame, they were such a nice couple, suppose you'll be leaving soon as well."
Great. That's all the morning motivation I was looking for. I don't need a workout; I want a full-fat latte with everything on it. But soon my quest leads me in diverse directions. I briefly look at the prospect of backpacking around the world and then dismiss it. The thought of being run down by some crazed, high-octane lorry driver on a deserted motorway in the foothills of self-actualisation is too much of a turn-off. Next!
My wife reminds me the school fees are due next week - OK, better concentrate. I meet a former investment banker who has become a successful writer; bet he has a tall tale to tell. I bump into a former chief financial officer who is now producing low-budget horror movies. Could I do that? Probably not, those slasher movies scare me witless. Then I meet a tough litigation lawyer who gave it all up and is now spending his days working as a gardener, tending to flowers and lawns. Oh, how lovely, how green. The town will soon be full of gardeners billing in six-minute intervals. No, not for me. Besides, I'll probably contract hay fever or some other allergy.
Eventually I determine that there are two options for which former corporate executives like myself may opt. First, go back to school. I'm lucky enough to meet a fellow traveller, Ben Sywulka, who is now enrolled as a full-time MBA student at HULT Business School in Dubai Academic City. As a former executive with a company providing low-cost technology to developing countries, he was half-way to doing something with his life that is actually helping real people with real issues. So why is he doing an MBA?
"I had been planning to get my MBA for several years," he says. "The decision to study was a combination of factors. I recently got married and many of the projects I had been working on were wrapping up, which gave me the ability to leave on a down-cycle without loose ends. The decision was accelerated by the economic downturn, as I would have found it more difficult to leave if I'd been in the middle of implementing exciting projects."
Ben's sentiments seem to be backed up by Ehsan Razavizadeh, the head of the representative office at the Cass Business School in Dubai. He says there has been a steep rise in the number of executive entrants to the Cass MBA. "This year we have experienced a 45 per cent increase in applicants," he says. "Our students are particularly diverse, both from a cultural perspective and also with their varied professional expertise."
Wait. I already have an MBA, so I'll have to cross that one off the list. Maybe a PhD. I like the sound of a doctorate. The second option: set up my own business. Be my own boss. I speak with Dr Tahir Akhtar, the chairman of Dubai Business Advisors, a firm helping start-ups and providing advice to companies in general. He has witnessed an increase in the number of start-ups recently and advises me of the following:
"We have recorded a year-on-year increase of 47 per cent in new business incorporation from individuals who were previously employees in the UAE. These entrepreneurial-minded employees saw the tough job market as an opportunity to create long-term equity by employing their skills to their own business." When I ask him about the general sentiment for starting your own business, he says the "inability to secure employment was a major factor, but a number of individuals were considering owning a business while they were in employment. For most, the satisfaction of owning a business and the ability to make the decisions outweighs all other considerations".
This seems to be backed up by the figures coming out of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which says 2,063 new firms have opened this year compared to the 974 that started in the same period last year. While I'm mulling over the facts and figures, the red reminder for the school fees arrives. "Don't panic", I say to myself as the old Bob Marley track swims into my mind: "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right".
I think it will as well, which brings me back to where I started from. I'm still working on it, but my daughter will be the first to know once I've figured it out.
Rehan Khan is the former chief operating officer of a Dubai-based property developer