‘You should…’ is probably the most common phrase in the Indian dictionary:
- “You should do well in your studies.”
- “Look at XYZ — You should be more like him/her.”
- “You should do well in your Board exams. Then you should take up engineering/law/medicine for your career.”
- “You should get married now.”
- “You should have a high-paying job.”
- “You should maintain a certain status in society.”
- “It is high time… you should have kids now.”
- … and the cycle continues
Truly, Indians are obsessed with convention. Indian society believes in homogenization, and makes sure everyone’s life follows a common trajectory. And if any unfortunate soul deviates from the conventional path, society is unforgiving towards them:
- Kids who do not do well in class are belittled by their own parents.
- If someone does not do well enough in their Board exams or college entrance exams, that person is made to believe that his/her life is doomed.
- Have not got married by 30 (females) or 35 (males)? What is wrong with you?
- Few people will tell you to your face that you suck because you are in a relatively low-paying job. But you will keep getting subliminal signals that you might have done better for yourself.”
Granted that there is a lot of goodness in Indian society, and many people do really care about you. But, …
I am sure no one can.
Again, some conventions may actually be good. But the important part is that we should not blindly follow rules set down by others.
We should question convention
Let us start by questioning one of the most commonly held beliefs in Indian society…
What shaped our thoughts and principles about careers? If your parents held jobs throughout their lives, invariably they would have advised you with the following dictum:
“You should do well in your studies.”
Well, one must agree that there is a certain amount of truth to this dictum. If one does well in studies, that person does have a higher chance of getting a well-paid job later on in life.
But at what cost must we enforce this dictum?
- I have seen children being belittled by their own parents because they did not live up to their parent’s expectations of getting the best possible marks in class. How would that child ever grow up to be a confident person?
- I have seen a naturally gifted sportsperson (a state champion in his sport) being advised by his parents to drop out of sports practice when he reached class IX, “He needs to concentrate on his upcoming Board exams. And what good will sports do anyway?” That person did leave that sport, possibly forever. Could not he have managed both?
- I have seen parents and teachers lauding the academic prowess of the class toppers (I was one myself, so I know first-hand). Why is the same applause not given to a kid who is talented in art, in music, in dramatics, or in sport?
We are breeding machines.
Dr Sugata Mitra, Professor at Newcastle University and Chief Scientist, Emeritus at NIIT, gave an outstanding TED talk, where he described how our education system had become obsolete. He argues that the existing Victorian system of disciplined “uniform”-ed education was created to breed exactly that — disciplined “uniform”-ed workers to feed the industrial machine. But the Victorian era is well past us. The power of the Internet gives immense learning power to each one of us. Yet we cling on to an outdated behemoth of an education system — a system that creates followers instead of leaders.
Questioning the conventional norms of Indian education was just one example of how we can question convention. The important point is that we should question instead of follow.
From “You should…” to “I feel like…”
In India, we are taught to respect elders, and to unquestioningly obey their advice. We may have had our moments of rebellion, but we still followed conventions when it came to making the big choices of our life.
But elsewhere in the world, people live with a different mindset towards convention. I have not travelled the entire world, but I can speak about USA. Here, no one will question you if you decide to take up arts instead of medicine. No one will raise an eyebrow if you are an unmarried thirty-five year old female. And yet, unlike notions held by many in India, these people are not pagans. They too are able to live happy and meaningful lives.
[EDIT: I may have painted too rosy a picture of America — thanks to Lakshmi, my wife, for pointing that out. Not all Americans are able to assert their freedom of choice. There are many Americans who cannot believe in complete personal freedom, and are anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights, pro-“I-need-an-AK-47-for-self-defense” (everyone hears about these people on the news). But there are still many others who believe strongly in the concept of personal freedom — fortunately their number is extremely size-able too.]
The only difference was that they decided to hold personal freedom of choice as a precious aspect of their lives.
It boils down to one question — what will my generation do? As we transition from youth to adult-hood to parent-hood, will we make the same choices as our previous generations? Will we rebuke our children for not doing well enough in their studies? When advising about careers, will we hold financial rewards greater than emotional rewards? Will we allow our perceptions and beliefs to be changed?
And finally, will we allow “You should…” to be replaced by “I feel like…”?