Profile – Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid combines a consultancy post at Wolff Olins with a writing career that has just seen him shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize. Fiona Sibley is impressed by this bright business mind meets novelist

If you ever sit around designing the utopian career you might land one day, Mohsin Hamid’s experience is the sort of blueprint you might lust after.

It is perhaps not surprising that Hamid has achieved the kind of portfolio career that inspires envy. I imagine he sits around envisaging bigger pictures where the sky is bluer and everyone is happier for much of his own time too. Three days a week, Hamid is head of consulting at Wolff Olins, but he doesn’t tend to say much about that; rather, you may recognise his name as one of the lesser-known novelists to have made The Man Booker Prize shortlist this year.

Throughout a successful business career that has seen him work as a management consultant at McKinsey in New York, then a freelance journalist for titles including The New York Times and The Washington Post, before joining Wolff Olins in 2004, he has successfully negotiated himself considerable time – outside of the office – in which to write.

‘We’re all in a creative profession, in these related spaces of design and branding, so it’s a good idea to think creatively about how you want your job to work,’ suggests Hamid, in his soothingly confident, author meets hotshot-branding-consultant’s voice.

Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was published in March this year, just two months before Wolff Olins promoted him to senior level. The Booker success was a surprise, he says. The novel is set in the corporate world of New York, which follows a young, Western, professionally successful Muslim man, ill at ease with corporate America. Rather than a post-9/11 narrative, Hamid actually began writing the novel in 2000, then history happened, and his original theorem had to be shifted into a whole new paradigm, taking seven years in all.

Hamid is an immensely likeable character, full of the compassion you’d expect from a novelist with the insight you’d expect from a bright business mind. To write is one thing, but to be an excellent writer is another, and much the same can be said about crafting brands. At 36, Hamid is an extraordinary individual to have risen swiftly to the top of both fields.

Born in Pakistan, Hamid studied at Princeton and Harvard Law School, before embarking on a career at McKinsey in 1997. It wasn’t his intention – that was to become a constitutional lawyer in Pakistan – but shaky politics and student loans, coupled with the need to find sponsored employment to stay in the US, propelled him into a career in management consultancy. Right from the outset, he negotiated himself a contract to spend three months in every 12 writing his first novel, Moth Smoke, a regular sabbatical that most can only dream of. It was published in 2000.

By 2004, he’d moved to Pakistan on journalistic assignments, when he was headhunted by Wolff Olins. It was seeking someone with his match of strategy with a creative background. ‘I was intrigued that anyone could be looking for an ex-Mc Kinsey consultant/novelist for a job,’ he grins. ‘ I certainly didn’t expect them to say yes to me working three days a week.’

Citing client confidentiality, Hamid reveals nothing about specific projects at Wolff Olins, but overall, he says, the consultancy ‘tries to be counter-intuitive and offer an emotional viewpoint’.

‘We might help a big financial service to understand that money is becoming central to everything people do, down to paying for drinks in bars. This shapes an individual’s sense of security and self-worth, so how can we get an insurance company to think of a person in that way?’ he explains.

‘Or, we might help a phone brand to focus not on whether it is 3G or whatever, but how is the human desire not to be alone something you can work with and serve? It’s a different kind of consulting that blows the box open.’

Clearly, Hamid’s knack of generating ideas feeds both his professional roles. But is he ever plagued by the view that art shouldn’t be muddied with commerce?

‘I feel that notion niggling me from time to time,’ he says, ‘but not really. Literature is now a corporate field, and writers have never been separated from the economic means of production. This balance isn’t my rejection of the business world – divorcing art from commerce can result in irrelevant art. In real life people go to work, and my characters have jobs, and face the moral quandaries that go with them.’

Hamid is currently planning his next novel. ‘If I want to take seven years to write a book, the job gives me the independence to do it,’ he grins. ‘If I were a full-time consultant, I’d be in an angst-ridden state.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is published by Hamish Hamilton, priced £14.99

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