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The Wisdom of Nothing

If 2021 taught me something, it was that being ordinary is just fine. There is an extra-ordinary power in the ordinary, I realized. The lessons came from three sources – my brother, my wife, and my late mother.

Here was my humble brag – that I was the genius and the dark horse of my family. I am the first entrepreneur, first to attend a premier business school and cross a particular mark in my High School board exams. My cousins took more traditional routes in their career journeys.

I took the leap from a cushy corporate job to a consulting career without much of a bank balance. I struggled emotionally, physically, and financially. It took me the best part of the last decade to succeed. The reason I took to entrepreneurship was to be flexible on my work timings, given my personal challenges and my burning desire to earn the big buck.

Last year, one day, as my wife and I were on a walk, we discussed life and success. She said,’ There is no need to pursue success relentlessly.’ I was a little surprised, I admit. ‘I am not sure if I understand.’ ‘There is a cost to success. Relationship, health, peace, sleep – that we cherish now, are the ones we all lose when we pursue success, right?’

She was right. I started thinking about it.

‘We have enough and we have only one kid. So why the chase?’ She asked, looking at nothing in particular. ‘That is true. I am not keen to chase rainbows either.’

In 2016, I had made a $10 Billion plan along with my partners. Then, as water flowed under the bridge, it turned out I had to sacrifice everything including family. My partners, who were older than me, clearly had sparkling and loving family lives, and I was slowly influenced by them. But I held steadfast to our plans. Inevitably, I was torn between the yearning to achieve – as I saw the success of my peers in LinkedIn – raising capital, scaling, and even cashing out millions of dollars. And yet here I was.

‘You suffer from stress, acidity, and insomnia. What more proof you need?’, she asked.

I looked at the trees that were still in the absence of breeze – a tall building was coming up just outside the corridor, and it blocked the free flow of air – I could but not ignore the metaphor.

‘It is fine to be ordinary.’ She said, looking me into the eye. ‘It is ok to lounge and watch meaningless television or be sleeping.’

I did not reply. I had always felt that I needed days just to lie down, or binge watch serials, or read books without a schedule. Yet, I always turned on my phone or email, and looking for something I would have missed in my task list. Else, I would be feeling guilty.

‘Slow down. Slow down.’ She said. I sighed and kept quiet.

***

Being a technology enthusiast, it was easy to make up my mind about how technology was the harbinger of our daily lives. The smartphone and Internet, coupled with data science and artificial intelligence, would change everything. Add automation, it is a possibility that technology would become the masters and manipulators of human lives.

I had come into an obsession with the concept of ‘useless humans‘. I came across this term when I read ‘Homo Deus’ by Yuval Novah Harrari. He says, and I quote, ‘Artificial Intelligent machines are now beginning to outperform humans in the cognitive field. And while new types of jobs will certainly emerge, we cannot be sure that humans will do them better than AIs, computers, and robots.’ ‘I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint.’

I have used the term ‘useless human’ in my conversations with my son, in particular. I believed that every human is inborn with a talent and a purpose, and his calling is to use the talent for the purpose.

My calling, I say, is writing, and if I don’t give it the full time and focus, I may lose the talent, and I may end up with regrets. My son would disagree, as I usually walked in on him playing some video games or some ‘dumb’ chats with his friends. Yet, if I step back, it turns out that he is finding his own path at his own pace. He is typical of the genre that has learnt to adapt and co-exist with the gizmos and gadgets; while we have seen the lateral insertion of technology in our lives.

The point is that what we did to other animals and plants – maiming and destroying their habits, instincts, and habits – we are suffering the same in the hands of machines. We can explain this as a natural course of human evolution piqued by human innovation and greed.

‘My kid does not believe in studying. He is happy seeing ‘useless videos’, browsing, and chatting. He is now studying for a competitive exam. I am not sure – he wants to be an aeronautical engineer, but he does not have the fire to prepare for the necessary competitive exams.’

My brother explained his concern, when we spent time together, waiting on our mother as she spent her days in the hospital. My son went through a crisis of confidence before the board exams. A brilliant guy, he suddenly folded, refusing to attend board preparation exams. I had to take him for psychological counselling; finally, with my wife’s sage advice, we took him off the technology education race.

A few months later, he decided to pursue Visual Communication, because he had this passion towards creating videos of YouTube. Between the right choice of education and his passion, he seems to be exploring the nuances of the tools and technology.

The point here is that humans, either as professionals or parents tend to chase the rainbow of technology, and in the process, build a life of stress. It is hard to imagine a life without technology, but we cannot make technology the purpose of our lives. Even worse, we cannot let technology overtake our lives and upend our very social fabric. As Yuval indicates, ‘useless humans’ are those who have been replaced by intelligent machines and rendered jobless. While he advises on the State supporting these humans with financial assistance, more on a moral basis than social or economical basis.

If we make technology as the basis of our further evolution, we can see that either we become useless or lead highly stressful lives. Extrapolating this, I move to the larger point – if the society that has been built so far on purpose, success, and goals, then a life of race and stress is inevitable.

This is what my wife was pointing to – a life built on purpose leads to stress and sacrifices.

***

Of course, we remember only a few names of the billions of humans who have left a legacy beyond their mortal lives. There are many mortals who lived nondescript lives and are not remembered beyond their immediate kin. All we have to look around and we can find numerous deceased who struggled to pay bills and then have died.

Did they not have a higher calling or purpose? – A purpose that would make them stand apart, work hard on their talent, and then add value to this world, thereby creating a legacy. I debated this point when my mother recently passed away.

My mother wrote in her left hand, which was whimsical. People around her either hated or loved her. There was no middle way about it. But the most noteworthy about her was that she was a genius – she would remember names, numbers, events, and links. She had a knack of connecting with people, even the janitor and the trainee ‘papaa‘ nurses who tended her during the last days in her hospital. Somehow, she gave an identity to them, by talking about their trials and tribulations. Nobody would ever forget her after meeting her.

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Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian is a Poet and Fiction Author based in Chennai, India. Ashok has been writing blogs and content since 2011. From technology and management articles, and to website content, Ashok has written articles on businesses, finance, funding, capital markets, management, strategy, and sustainability over the years. His poems and articles, which were published in blogs got a publishing turn when he had time in hand to put together his poetry and short story collections. He publishes short stories and poetry reviews regularly in his medium.com blog. His published works so far: a) Maritime Heritage of India - Contributing Writer - b) Poetarrati Volume 1 &2: Self-published on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback; Ranked #8 in Amazon Hot Releases in May 2020. c) A City Full of Stories: A Short fiction Collection based on people and events of Mumbai: Self-published in Amazon in Kindle and Paperback. d) Poetarrati Ponder 2020 - A collection of Poem Reviews He is currently working with his creative advisor and publisher on his next poetry collection. His second short story collection about Kolkata, India, and his first novel are in the manuscript stage. He is a graduate in Engineering from Madurai Kamaraj University, India, and a post-graduate in Management from IIM Calcutta, India. He currently runs Strategic Advisory and Investment Banking companies headquartered in Bengaluru. He lives with his wife Gayathri and son Anirudh in Chennai, India.

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