Nobler than a Nobel

What dictates your life choices? Trophies, awards, public recognition? Or a desire to excel, fuelled by passion?

November 26, 2012 05:30 pm | Updated 05:34 pm IST

A fixation on medals and trophies dilutes intrinsic motivation, the most important catalyst for doing notable work.

A fixation on medals and trophies dilutes intrinsic motivation, the most important catalyst for doing notable work.

Degrees, awards, honours, titles and Who’s Who lists occupy a pre-eminent position in the Indian psyche. While we prize accolades and flaunt laurels won by Indians, especially those bestowed by foreign hands, we define ‘success’ in very narrow terms. During a child’s scholastic career, success is synonymous with marks a student obtains. However, even in adulthood, we continue to place a premium on external indices. The number of zeroes in a person’s salary is directly proportional to a person’s status in our social hierarchy. ‘Success’ in our country is synonymous with public recognition, and, at times, even adulation. By thus paying tribute to achievement, we fail to nurture genuine passions and intrinsic drives. We motivate children to succeed by conventional standards, but do not necessarily inspire them to excel.

Can conditioning stop?

From a very early age, we instil children with the notion that how they appear to others is crucial. So, when a test is returned in class, students vie for the book with the highest mark, not to read and learn how the topper framed her answers, but to see if they can haggle with the teacher for an extra half mark. Furthermore, when life-altering decisions are made, we give more emphasis to societal expectations than a child’s own proclivities. As a result, many students end up in fields that they are not ideally suited for. All top-performers in Board exams are expected to pursue engineering, medicine or economics regardless of their interests. As these coveted fields lead to jobs with lucrative salaries and high status, society expects all bright children to follow the beaten path. So when Jairam, a topper opted for history, he was derided by his family and friends. “What will you do with a degree in history?” is a question that he heard repeatedly. When Jairam emphatically stated that he wanted to be a professor and pursue research on ancient Dravidian scripts, he was scoffed at.

Only when ‘knowledge’ is tagged with a prestigious award does it merit attention. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, on his first visit to India after winning the Nobel, remarked that prior to all the hype and hoopla surrounding the prize, less than 300 people attended his lecture in Chennai. However, following the Nobel buzz, over 3000 people thronged to hear him. The surge in interest was not due to a sudden spate of curiosity in science but with a mindset that creates and deifies ‘stars’. The media further propagates a culture of glitz and glamour in every domain. Hardly any newspaper or magazine covered Ramakrishnan’s work before the Nobel; though after the award, they clamoured for his opinion on matters unrelated to his field of expertise.

Predilections vs Prizes

When a student asked Ramakrishnan how students could emulate him and win a Nobel for the country, pat came the reply: “That is a wrong question to ask…You can’t go into science thinking of a Nobel Prize. You can only go into science because you’re interested in it.” The student’s question points to a cultural climate where inherent proclivities and predilections are sidelined for prestigious prizes.

When we overplay an award, we present a distorted view of what an achievement actually entails. Perseverance and passion, the key ingredients for producing great works, be they in art, science or business, are seldom highlighted. The instant stardom that an award bestows does not reflect the years of toil— the frustration, angst and sheer hard work— that go into producing a substantive piece of work in any field.

In a state of flow

In fact, a fixation on medals and trophies dilutes intrinsic motivation, the most important catalyst for doing notable work. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe the mental state where a person is so immersed in an activity that he loses track of time and a sense of self. A person in a flow state is so absorbed in his work that distracting emotions do not cloud his mind.

Flow cannot be achieved if a person is averse to failure. Only when a person fails and is motivated to try and try again, can flow be attained. In fact, a person in flow does not even think he is failing when a desired result does not emerge, but feels he is learning. Moreover, flow can be experienced in any activity — from gardening to parenting to music to ruminating over philosophical conundrums. What matters is that the person is fully engaged in an activity that is optimally challenging and feels in control of the situation.

Thus, youngsters who are at a fork road in their lives should extricate themselves from societal straitjackets that force them to select courses based on “what people will say.” Instead, students should reflect on their signature strengths and interests and pursue courses and careers that they find intrinsically fulfilling. Educators and parents also have to make a concerted effort to cultivate a conducive climate where students do not feel the need to ask, “What must we do to win a Nobel?”

The author is the Director, PRAYATNA.

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