What makes up a person’s life story – her or his self-construction? It varies from person to person, but we often find our self-perception is created by cues others give us of our worth in a community, and these tend to affect the amount of respect we grant ourselves. But the perceptions others have of us are so limited. We tend to show bits and pieces of our character to individuals based on the trust we put in them, but only we can control how we understand our own potential and actualize it. A young entrepreneur once articulated these seemingly contrasting aspects of his own life story into two parts– his outer journey and his inner journey.
The outer journey, he said, consisted of what others deemed important in him, or milestones he had achieved as he sought to please others – his grades, college choice, associations with big names, awards. This leg of the journey mattered, but in the end it didn’t define him. The part that steered him towards a better understanding of himself was his inner journey – the ups and downs in life, the particular experiences, the people he’d met – all of which added up to his understanding of himself, his surroundings, and his idea of the world. The inner and outer journeys were intertwined, like an infinity sign that constantly looped the definition of his life. He had to go through the outer one to experience the inner one, and vice-versa, and losing sight of one made him lose sight of the other. They relied on both outer and inner perceptions of his role in society, though he knew which one mattered more.
I thought about these two distinct parts of life all of us experience as twenty one bright, talented individuals drew the group their life stories today. Hearing about how 18 of these individuals who were Indian spoke of their life’s ups and down surprisingly hit me as a shock. For most of them, their life story was defined by their academics and subsequently their jobs. The ups consisted of academic strengths and achievements, followed by obtaining well-reputed jobs at well-known companies. The days or months where they had been depressed or doubted themselves were when they didn’t do well in exams, or moved to an environment where their intelligence was questioned. I was amazed at the achievements these individuals had achieved, and the organizations some of them had set up. But I kept missing an understanding of who they were as people and what drove them. I had understood their outer journey, but their inner one was a complete mystery.
I wonder if this is part of Indian culture I have yet to understand. A person’s life and self-understanding cannot solely be defined by their academics, but it feels as if for many from middle- or upper-middle class backgrounds, education is what makes the difference. In a semi-meritocracy where the branding of an IIT or NIT, along with the right percentages on exams, and knowing the right alumni gets you a job at a consultancy, something seems amiss. When I reflect on it, it’s nothing new. The same cycle works just as effectively in the U.S. and many other countries, but I suppose the bit of shock I felt came from my own expectations of people in the program itself. I had anticipated a lot of people from the social sciences, but most of the yatris I’ve met have had business or engineering experiences. Ultimately, this means I must unlearn my own understanding of those in these sectors. After all, engineering has historically defined innovation and businesses are now driving entrepreneurship. So part of my inner journey in this experience must be opening my mind to how social innovation can come about in India, and from whom.