The university auditorium was packed. The grand finale of the students fest was on.
Students poured in to hear the talk by the much-feted poor farmer turned entrepreneur turned ‘poster-boy of capitalism’ turned ‘much sought after motivational speaker’.
As the speaker bounded onto the stage displaying an energy not often seen in a greying man past his prime, he was greeted with a thunderous applause. He was a son of the soil, from their own backyard, so to speak, and the audience felt a special affinity.
He was funny & a good story teller. They laughed at his self-deprecating humour. They listened in awe as he regaled them with anecdotes on how he strived through poverty, completed college, couldn’t land a job, left home for the far away city with little money in his pockets, slept on footpaths, got his first job, got bored, had the urge to do something else, started a business, struggled through losses with steady determination, smelled his first success, got the ball rolling, diluted to private equity, launched IPO, expanded & grew overseas, added a zero to his net worth every few years, disrupted the industry with continuous innovations, improved lives & changed the world. He spoke passionately about focus, discipline, ambition, stamina, integrity, friends, & family.
Everyone in the audience was touched by his words. The students were moved, inspired, energised. The world was their oyster. Anything was possible. They can strike it rich. They can make it big. They can change the world. Yes, the world needed lots of changing. And its up to them to change it for the better. Who else can do it, if they can’t?
As they shuffled out of the auditorium, in high spirits, thinking about rosy futures, mulling over the speech and how they could perhaps do even better than the speaker, the lone student in the front row sat back in his chair, watching the small crowd of students gathered around the speaker on the stage. Some sought autographs from the speaker, a few tried engaging him with a few questions or comments, and others just hung around taking a closer look at the man of the moment.
The student sat thinking. He thought about the speech. It was a powerful oration. Funny, personal, emotional, inspiring…yes. But the message? Was it universal? Did he hear it right? As the hall emptied out, he got up to leave.
Walking through the corridors in deep thought, he found himself outside the Professor’s cabin. He peeped in and saw the Prof clearing his desk. A few open carton boxes full of books & papers were on the floor, ready to be packed. He knocked.
The prof looked up. ‘Hey, come in’
He stood at the door. “Hello Prof, when are you moving out?”
“Soon. The dean is already breathing down my neck”, smiled the Prof as he glanced through some papers in his hands.
He eyed the half empty cabin. “Whats your retirement plan, Prof?”
“Guess I will continue doing what I have been doing all along – wonder about life and perhaps have more fun, now that I won’t have curious & stubborn students disturbing my reveries”, said the prof with a friendly wink. ‘How was the talk? I missed it. “
“I am not sure”, he mumbled.
The Prof paused shuffling his papers. ‘Why?”
“What is life?” he asked.
The Prof was surprised. He gestured the student to a nearby chair. ‘Tell me, whats on your mind?”
“Making it big, becoming rich, changing the world, making a big impact…are these what life is all about Prof?” He thought he sounded agitated.
P : Did the speaker say that?
S : He spoke about his life, his experiences, how he grew out of poverty, how he became rich and famous, how he served the society through his business, and, in the process, changed & improved the world around him.
P : Well, that sounds like a good and inspiring life story. Don’t you think so?”
S : No doubt many of my friends would be inspired. But I am afraid the message they might take out of the talk would be mixed up.
P : Why do you say that?
S : Not everybody can become rich. Not everybody can change the world. What will happen to most of us who aspire towards those goals and fail?
P : Go on…
S : Going by the law of averages, not all of us can become rich, famous, & powerful. Not all of us can possibly hope to have the kind of life & career the speaker has. Even if we had all the necessary skills and qualifications, we may not be lucky. Just working hard, being motivated, not giving up etc. does not ensure anything. Most of us will end up having boring, mediocre and average lives, compared to that of the speaker. Are we being deceived?
The Prof remained silent.
He continued. “What will happen if all of us set out to change the world, trying to make it better, make an impact? Even if we can’t strike it rich or big, can all of us change the world? We often disagree with each other. We often have different ideas. We often act differently. Won’t we end up arguing & fighting with each other? Won’t we work at cross purposes? Can we really change the world?
The Prof cleared his throat. “No, you can’t?”
He stared blankly at the Prof, not sure if he heard right.
S : We can’t change the world? But, thats what the speaker was goading us to do.
P : Are you sure thats what he meant? Possibly he was just sharing his life story as an inspiration. And maybe you took away an unintended message.
S : We have a rich, famous, & powerful orator on stage. Thats the message most students would have got. I guess most of them would be charged up now, to go out into the world and make a difference. They might also want to become rich & famous. They may also secretly dream about becoming a powerful orator and inspiring other youngsters to copy themselves.
The Prof chuckled. “You got a point there”
He continued. “So Prof, is that life? Should I graduate, find a job, do business, become rich, famous, powerful, change the world, improve society? Will I be a failure if I don’t do some or all of these? Should I really strive to change the world? The world is so big and complex. I don’t even know where and how to start.”
“What do you want to do?”, asked the Prof.
“I am a science student, perhaps slightly above average. Curious to learn. No big ambitions as of now. Perhaps I may land a regular job in the govt. or private sector. Or maybe go into academics and teach, like you. I don’t see myself becoming rich, famous or powerful. I may or may not change the world in any significant way. I don’t have any such intentions now. I am starting to worry if I am on the right path.
‘You are”, said the Prof.
He was surprised. “But that sounds like a simple and boring life & career. Not at all extraordinary like that of the speaker. I won’t be changing the world. I won’t be rich. I won’t improve society. And I don’t want to have any regrets when I am 80. What should I do?
The Prof smiled. “Just do what you like & enjoy. The world will take care of itself”
S : That sounds oversimplified and smug. Most people out there in the world want to become rich, famous & powerful. Some of my friends are already hatching plans to change the world by starting up new businesses, solving complex social problems, taking on established norms & ideas.
P : Perhaps that’s what they like & enjoy doing.
S : But what about changing the world? Is that even possible?
P : No single person can change the world. The world changes due to the collective ideas & actions of mankind. Not to forget the actions of other animals, birds, insects & Mother Nature.
S : But some people seem to make a bigger impact than others?
P : Well, you mentioned luck, didn’t you?
S : So even if I had great skills, I need great luck. And even if I have both, I still may not get a life similar to that of the speaker?
P : Yes
S : That’s demoralising.
P : That’s life, face it
S : So what should I do Prof
P : As I said before, just do what you like & enjoy. Don’t worry too much about the world, because you can’t change it.
S : Should I not even attempt to change the world? To be frank, there are so many things wrong with this world. Given a chance, I would like to change many things.
P : Then try to get the chance.
S : Prof, you know its not that simple. I may have to become a big businessman or politician to change the world. I don’t think I will enjoy it.
P : Then why talk about it. You enjoy science. Do that.
S : But the problem is I also feel frustrated by what I see around me. I want to change the world, but don’t know how, given my interests & limitations.
P : As each of us does our bit, the world changes. If you feel strongly about something, go and do something about it. But, remember, both skill & luck play a big role. No point being disappointed if you cannot bring about a change you feel passionate about. You do your bit. Others do their bits. The world changes, slowly.
S : So can I just pursue a normal average life, take up a regular job, not become rich or famous, but still contribute towards changing the world?
P : Yes
S : That sounds fantastic
P : Yes, it is fantastic. But thats how a complex system works. Our lives, nature, the world…are all complex systems. No one person can change or impact the big complex system in a significant way. Its easier to bring about a change in yourself. If you try hard, you could possibly bring about a change in your family & neighbourhood. But, beyond that, its difficult. Bringing about a change in a city, country or the world is almost impossible.
S : But I can still inspire & motivate others to copy me, like the speaker did, to change the world according to my taste & liking?
P : You can try, but that’s not easy. Its easier to just do what you like & enjoy. If others are inspired by you, so be it.
S: There are so many norms, boundaries, ethics & morals. I just can’t do everything & anything I like.
P : Yes, of course. You have to navigate societal norms.
S : You say navigate. Should I blindly follow the norms or can I stand up to them?
P : Do both, as the situation demands. Norms are always changing. What was not considered immoral in 19th century is frowned upon now. Industries cannot freely pollute these days. Gay marriages were unheard of in the past.
S : How about money, fame & power? Should I pursue them? The speaker seemed to imply that’s the way to change the world.
P : You can, if you want to, if you really like & enjoy doing that. But, keep in mind, you won’t get them easily. Luck plays a big role. And, more importantly, they can also lead to one’s downfall. At least, that’s what history tells us.
S : What if I become rich, famous & powerful by pursuing what I like & enjoy?
P : Then be cautious about how you deal with & use your wealth, fame & power.
S : Won’t I be able to change the world in bigger & more powerful ways?
P : Yes, perhaps. But big & powerful actions may also backfire in big & powerful ways. Remember luck. Remember the world changes slowly. Remember history. And every other person also has a say in how the world changes, through their little ideas & actions. Besides, we don’t understand Mother Nature fully. Just because you got wealth, fame & power, you cannot change the world as you like.
S : So, don’t you agree with the speaker?
P : I don’t agree with what you think he conveyed through his talk. That’s his life story. You can be inspired. You can learn. But stop there. Don’t try to copy him. You can’t.
S : What about the hundreds of students who listened to him? They don’t have the benefit of this discussion & your wisdom. What will happen to them?
The Prof shrugged.
S : What is life, Prof?
P : Survive. Do what you like & enjoy. Learn. Have fun.
S : And, don’t worry too much about the world?
P : Yes. You can’t change it all by yourself. And you are changing it anyway, in small ways, through you little ideas & actions. You are part of a complex system, a cog in the giant wheel. Be content with what you can do.
S : Shouldn’t I be ambitious?
P : Doing what you like & enjoy…isn’t that ambitious enough?
S : All of us don’t have, or don’t need to have, similar or same ambitions?
P : No, that’s not possible
S : I don’t have to follow the speaker?
P : Learn from him, don’t copy him.
S : What you say seems to make sense. But I am not sure. Are you right Prof?
The Prof smiled. “You have to find out for yourself”