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Decoding ordinariness – Excerpts from my three-part series

One recurring thought in my mind this whole year has centred around what I call “ordinariness”. The idea comes from the contrast in my experiences with life and people, first as a web media entrepreneur and a Fellow in a leadership development programme for a combined six years, and then as a journalist over the last year and a half.

Here are the three pieces from the series I wrote this year to explore the topic (its causes, symptoms, harms, and solutions), while linking it to education and leadership.

    1. Being a leader at 18 is a great thing, but here’s what you miss out on (YourStory)
    2. The Trap Of Ordinariness Is Killing Our Imagination (Huffington Post)
    3. Teaching Our Children Self-Awareness is Essential to Education (My blog)

Excerpts:

[…] Initially, I was baffled by the idea that our youth could be so comfortable with ordinariness of self and with misfortunes of the world. I thought I had seen a lot – right from the best people (the capable and the concerned) and their working style, to a grassroots disadvantaged community in north-east Delhi (the incapable but the concerned). I suddenly realized there existed a category “capable but apathetic” – which means most of our youth, who are victims of our poor education culture.

I hardly know anyone who doesn’t have a goal in life. But most end up leading ordinary lives, doing work they don’t really like, for someone they don’t like, looking forward to the weekend rather than Monday. I realized exactly what sets leaders apart from the ordinariness around them. Each point of difference boils down to this: ordinary people spend their lives trying to fit in.Ordinary people get awed or intimidated by the good, but they are influenced only by the mediocre. Leaders, on the contrary, get influenced by the inspirational, and they lift the mediocre. Unfortunately, getting awed and intimidated helps nobody. Ordinariness breeds more ordinariness. The Facebook news feed is enough evidence.

Leaders are in control of their lives. Ordinary people give the control of their lives to external influences: what they do, how they spend free time, what they talk about, how they speak, the words they use, what goals they have, how they derive their happiness and how they treat people around them – I know a lot of self-proclaimed independent youngsters who derive these heavily from others. […]

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[…] Very few of us take initiative to create because we do not value our areas of interest enough. We like to treat academic and professional work as more sacrosanct than our own hobbies.So sacred in fact, that such work seems larger than daily life. Those who accidentally love such work are called “nerds” – somewhat socially disrespectful.A guitarist, for example, is always cool for social circles. But he would be a nerd in a guitar school if he fondly reads a book about guitars: because at a guitar school, guitar is “academic work”, not “hobby”. Similarly, a writing enthusiast who spends the day writing would invite admiration or mockery, depending on whether he is a student of engineering or journalism.

Distinguishing so regularly between “work” and “hobby” is easy because very few of us get to do activities that can qualify as both. Not just the “nerds” who bother to convert hobbies into creation, each of us always has an ambition – a goal to create value for self and others. Still, most of us end up leading quite ordinary lives: doing work we don’t really find happiness in, for someone and with people we don’t like, often looking forward to the weekend rather than Monday.

We are socially trained, firstly, to dislike work because it must be uncool and joyless, and secondly, to let go of what we like most because it’s too lowly to lead you to your career. When this happens, there’s nothing left to actually love enough to be able to create and innovate.

The result is the first line of this article: young writing enthusiasts who do not write, singers who do not sing, music and sports lovers who have let their passions go.

We want life, but we need work. If we could find the kind of work that we want as much as we want life, we wouldn’t end up looking for that elusive goal called “work–life balance”. We are never taught that when work and hobby combine, creation happens, and life can be great fun.

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Personal ambitions – which can actually drive us to take initiative – are always in conflict with the need to seek acceptance among peer groups. Ordinariness, after all, is “cool”, and taking initiative to come out of that trap is “nerdy”. It’s cool to use Facebook to show you checked in at an airport and to post a selfie when you meet a friend. But in my early days, for running a satirical website that entertained thousands of readers, and for writing posts that generated great discussions, I have been called “idle” and “jobless” by people who spend their day scrolling down the Facebook news feed or doing random YouTube searches.

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[…] When we do not know ourselves deeply enough, the best we have to emulate is the world. And a world in which faith continues to take lives, and apathy and inequality continue to propagate each other, isn’t really the best world to depend on. Something is definitely not right with the education that leaves us with nothing but such a world to look up to, without giving us the resolve to lead our own selves and our people into lasting change. An excellent education must push for the ability to lead oneself and our society as a person and citizen.

Over the last few months, observing how lack of self-awareness around looks like has been a real learning for me. Constantly looking for social validation – falling for peer or family pressure, settling for smaller ambitions, conforming to beliefs and comfort zones – is only part of the symptom. I’ll give only a few common examples to illustrate my point.

1. In personal and professional lives, we blame circumstances more than ourselves because we do not know, and acknowledge, our weaknesses. We find excuses, not ways, and this is dangerous because it limits our potential and prevents us from finding solutions within ourselves so as to do better the next time. It makes us comfortable with settling down for less. An excellent education could have replaced this tendency to seek external reasons with intent to reflect and improve oneself.

2. Awareness of self leads to awareness of others, and we fare no good on that either. We blame circumstances also because we expect too much from others and the world around us – and this shows lack of awareness of others. We give people labels based on how they make us feel, not on what they are. We are more likely to say “He is nice to me” or “She is a total bitch” than we are to say “He is a generally nice person” or “She struggles with understanding others’ points of view”. Not being able to evaluate people and their actions leads to a lot of hatred around us, and this is dangerous because we might also be the object of hatred for some out of sheer misunderstanding.That hatred could have taken the form of acceptance if education had taught us how to explore people. The world would be a much nicer place if we could identify people’s strengths and weaknesses and their struggles with themselves.

3. We are often afraid of questioning authority. A summon by the boss or a teacher leads to a chill of fear, because formal education is a system that runs on others identifying our weaknesses for us and rebuking us for it. Had education been a system that taught us to evaluate ourselves, be confident of our strengths and work on our weaknesses, we would march towards our boss or teacher with confidence – confidence, enough to be sacked from work or to have parents summoned to school, because we know what we did wrong and why.

These are only some examples, but hopefully give a fair idea of how lacking self-awareness is dangerous and why it is an intrinsic problem with our education culture. Education need not create ideal human beings, but self-aware human beings, and definitely not confused, malicious human beings whose thoughts and actions are in a constant attempt to align with those of peers and society. […]

Published inOpinion

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