Remember the long hours we would spend when we were young fantasizing about what we wanted to ‘become’ when we were older? We weren’t even in our teens when our parents and their friends and our teachers already began asking us what our ‘ambition in life’ was. Inevitably, we learnt from them to define what we wanted to ‘become’—our ‘ambition in life’–simply by the careers we began dreaming of pursuing. The quality of our being, the sort of people we wanted to be, found no place in that definition.
That’s how most of us were trained to think about the purpose of life. Life was essentially the job you did. You and what you did for a living were virtually synonymous. There was hardly anything more to you than that. You were defined almost entirely by your profession. What sort of person you were—kind or mean, polite or rude, friendly or brash, spiritual or hedonistic, socially-concerned or aggressively individualistic—didn’t count at all.
‘Success’ in life, we were trained to believe, was entirely determined by the wealth and power that you possessed, the fame and glamour that you enjoyed, all of which emanated from what you did for a living. We were encouraged—and here the mass media, the schooling system, our families and friends all conspired to work in unison—to hanker after a career that would get us as much of these ‘goodies’ as possible. That, we were led to think, was the very purpose of our existence on earth. There was nothing more to life than that.
From childhood itself we began being socialized for the particular niches in the market that we were encouraged to dream of occupying. Of course, you were expected to dream ‘big’—of bagging a job that could get you as much money, fame, power and glamour as possible. But if you thought differently—suppose you said you wanted to be a penniless monk or a cloistered nun, a rickshaw-puller or a truck-driver, a shepherd, a hippie or a vagabond—the shock and horror that you would be met with from your parents and friends would be enough to force you to ‘fall in line’ at once. You risked being dragged off to the shrink if you persisted in dreaming these dreams. There were certain ambitions that you just couldn’t be allowed to entertain!
Like almost everyone else, I, too, was socialized into believing that what mattered most in life was what I would do for a living and the money, fame and glamour that would come along with it. Maximizing the titillation of the five senses was, I was taught to think, the purpose of life, and a ‘good’ job was one that enabled the maximum possible such ‘enjoyment’. I was taught to believe that being driven with ambition was a great thing. “It’s very good to be ambitious, to have drive,” ‘grown-up’ folks around me would say. But after several decades of getting and losing jobs and now being happily unemployable, I realize how totally impoverished this vision is. True, work is important, and it certainly shapes, as well as reflects, the sort of person you are. Indolence, of course, is awful, especially if it leads you to depend on others for your survival. That said, I am painfully aware of the terrible perils of the all-too-common tendency to reduce someone to the job he or she does, to define or evaluate him or her simply by what he or she does for a living. It completely misses out the most fundamental aspect of human life: the quality of a person’s being.
Over the decades, I held several ‘glamorous’ jobs, both at home and abroad. I earned a hefty salary, got to travel across the world, wrote many books and was awarded many fellowships. Going by the logic I was reared on, I was an eminent ‘success’. But was I really? Only I knew that despite—or even partly because of—these ‘major achievements’, I was really quite hollow inside. I may have had the wealth, fame and glamour that many would have envied, but what was the real me like? What sort of person was I? What was the quality of my being? For many years, I never even knew I needed to ask myself such questions—so successfully had I been brainwashed into believing the logic of defining people by the job they did, the wealth they owned and the degrees they had earned, and by whether or not they could speak and write the Queen’s English.
After some years of basking in my ‘achievements’, I began to have doubts about the whole thing. What was the use of all the many markers of ‘success’ that I had earned if they had done nothing at all to make me a better human being, I began to ask myself. Despite making it ‘big’ in my career, I still harboured enormous negativity. I was irritable, impatient and judgmental and often self-righteous. Sometimes, I could be very vicious. I reveled in gossiping about other people’s faults and failings, real and imaginary. I pontificated endlessly about changing the world but made no effort to change the only person I could have—myself. Above all, in my obsessive drive to fulfill my ambitions and be ‘successful’, I had completely turned my back on God (ironically, for decades I made money writing about God and religion!)
Being a ‘success’ according to the logic I had been reared on was truly pointless, it began to dawn on me. I certainly hadn’t become a more self-aware or better person with all the ‘success’ that I had ‘achieved’. On the contrary, my ‘success’ had gone to my head, and I had a bulging ego, puffed up completely out of proportion. I was a pathetic victim of the logic of defining ‘success’ by what one has—one’s job, academic degrees and wealth—rather than by what one is, as a person.
I am truly fortunate that I was led to discover the fallaciousness of the myth of ‘success’ that I had ardently believed for decades. No longer did I feel the compulsion to compete with others and to conform to what many people around me saw as the definition of a ‘successful’ life. I could now lead my life on my own terms.
We might not like to be reminded, but it’s true, isn’t it, that when we leave this world, as we all must one day, we’ll depart as empty-handed as we were when arrived here. At that momentous point in our lives, what will count and will make all the difference for our eternity is not the jobs we held and the wealth, degrees, fame and glamour that we earned, but, rather, the quality of our beings: the sort of persons we were. And at that moment we might discover—but it might then be too late—the hollowness of many of our conventional notions of ‘success’.
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