There are qualities that one needs to imbibe when one enters the workplace.

Many years ago when I was still a student, I heard from a veteran in the field that the three qualities that were central to good journalism were curiosity, courage, and compassion. One might add to this a fourth C (at the risk of sounding like all those other list makers who love alliteration!) — Commitment. Come to think about it, these are qualities that would seem to apply to pretty much any field of endeavour, and they don’t just begin when one enters the workspace but should guide all activity outside the bare routine.

Curiosity, most of us would agree, is the basis of all learning. While we might take in vast amounts of material that we have no interest in, we only learn things that we are actively curious about — and there’s a not-so-subtle difference there. We might pass examinations and even do exceedingly well in subjects that do not hold our interest at all, but if you were asked a question a month after you’ve regurgitated the material in a test, you would probably break your head trying to remember. Things that engage us, on the other hand, are more easily remembered, and things that we actively seek out, we almost never forget. Unfortunately, however, curiosity is something that our education system does not really foster — we all have it in good measure but we need to work on keeping it alive through the school and college years. A curious student is able to put together better assignments and projects, and find ways to make unexpected connections. However, this curiosity should not be merely academic. We need to be able to constantly ask about how things connect, how and why they should be done in a certain way and what the larger implications might be. This could at times end up making you feel uncomfortable — and this is where the other three “Cs” kick in.

Ask ‘why’ and ‘why not’

As you go into the workspace, mere curiosity may not suffice. You need to have the courage to follow the leads that your questions suggest. It means asking both “why” and “why not” and pursuing those questions in a committed and persistent manner. Now, courage may seem like a big word, something more suited to jobs that take one into life-and-death situations. But courage is something that is needed every day in some measure. It takes courage to say to an insistent peer group that you need to spend time finishing up an assignment when the rest of them want to party. It takes courage to be willing to be laughed at and ridiculed when you insist on taking a stand that does not meet the current notions of “cool”. In work situations, courage may mean standing up to an unfair boss or challenging the way a colleague has been treated.

I won’t belabour the need for the third ‘C’— compassion — as it is one of those qualities that is needed in all spaces of life, at home, at work, on the street, and in other public and private realms. Again, it is too often set aside as being irrelevant to the professional space unless of course one is a social worker. But a compassionate attitude can temper curiosity and direct courage in a meaningful way — to follow those lines of enquiry that make social and human sense or to look beyond financial gain when looking at costs and benefits of a certain action or decision.

Intervene

And commitment of course is what makes all of this come together in a meaningful and effective way. Speaking at a student symposium recently, Bangalore-based social entrepreneur Subramaniam Vincent described how a young market researcher in Bangalore had become involved in cleaning up a city lake. Faced with this civic problem, the young woman asked herself, “I’m educated, I’m an analyst, and I have the resources…I should be able to put my mind to this problem, and find a solution.” Clearly, the curiosity was there, and she found the courage to take the risk of entering an area — a public space — that was not part of her routine “job”, and went about committing herself to the task. The whole exercise was driven by compassion, in a certain sense, the drive to do something that would address a larger environmental problem. “The point of education is to make you intervene,” emphasised Vincent. To intervene to make things better…for yourself and for the people around you.

But stepping back again, for a moment, I’d like to reiterate that intervention of any kind is possible only if one has the curiosity to think in different ways, the courage to ask questions in the face of widespread acceptance, the compassion to turn those questions into useful and relevant ones, and the commitment to put your time and effort behind them. Now don’t get me wrong — I do not mean to imply that all work must have a direct or obvious social imperative (but wouldn’t that be a wonderful idea?). If you think carefully about it, these qualities make for better work of all kinds, in all spheres. Curiosity and commitment sharpen our skills, while compassion and courage contribute to the context within which those skills are applied.