Columnist – Pritish Nandy;Renewing the chase for excellence
The world has shifted from one axis to another. The Search for Excellence that once fired the imagination of the best and the most gifted among us has been edged out. What we now celebrate is the Search for Success, that amazing spirit which powers the dreams of soldiers of fortune, gold diggers and carpetbaggers. No, this is not about moral distinctions because soldiers of fortune have also made history, shaped human destiny. As Gordon Gekko says, Greed is good. It’s greed that sailed Columbus to India. He found America instead. It’s greed that brought the East India Company here, made us the nation we are today. It’s greed that drives modern China to such success that brings the world to Asia’s door. Yet, despite that, why does unabashed greed still make me squirm?
I guess it’s because we grew up with the Search for Excellence. Shops today are stacked with books that teach you only to win. Winning is not just everything, they warn you, winning is all. If you don’t win, everything is in vain. What you have learnt. What you practise. What you strive for. They add up to nothing unless you win. Winning is no more a process. It’s the goal, the only goal. You can lead a race all the way but if you don’t breast the tape before the rest, you don’t even count for a footnote. Excellence, on the other hand, is what you spend a lifetime seeking. It’s an art form, a faith. It teaches you to align yourself with the best. While success teaches you that you get only one shot at winning. Blow it, you’re gone.
The distinction between the two is clear. Yet we are all confused. Excellence and success are treated as synonyms today. We forget that the winner is not always excellent. We also forget that excellence doesn’t always ensure a win. I went to a school which taught me that there was no reason to fear defeat if I played the game well. But in those days, no sport was ever a gladiator sport, not even boxing. Our heroes were artistes of the game, not statistics hunters. Style defined the sportsman. Winning or losing was part of the game. In fact, we were even taught how to lose well. After all, there were always more people rooting for the losers. The underdog was the hero. The cocky winner, today’s role model, was everyone’s pet hate.
That’s changed now. The winner is a hero today. The only hero. The word loser is loaded with shame. It symbolises not someone shouldering the heroism of loss but the ignominy of defeat. A batsman returning to pavilion with 99 rarely gets a spirited applause. There’s only space for one team on the field after the game, the winners. Even if that victory is but by a whisker, the losers go out shamed. As if they have let everyone down. Even where a win is merely the outcome of a popular poll, in all probability fixed, the winner takes it all. There’s instant amnesia about the other participants. The winner too is only remembered till the next season when another winner steps in and grabs the limelight. We forget past winners so easily that they even forget they were once winners. Look at Deve Gowda. He is so badly behaved and abusive that no one believes he was once Prime Minister of India. While his successor, Gujral is so embarrassed he’s no longer in Race Course Road that he has slunk into a dark corner.
We are slowly forgetting that a world without losers can be dreadfully boring. Strutting, boastful winners are not easy to live with. Ask any journalist what it would be to live in a world full of Vidhu Vinod Chopras. That’s why the Search for Excellence is so crucial. It allows you the space, the bandwidth to accommodate other equally gifted people. Subodh Gupta is not the only artist around just because his works sell for the highest price. Aamir Khan is not the only star because he has given us 3 Idiots. Chetan Bhagat is not the only writer because his books sell in millions. Hits alone don’t define success. Or else Dan Brown would be a greater author than Dante. Damien Hirst a better painter than Gaugin, Himesh a greater singer than Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and James Cameron a better film maker than Satyajit Ray.
The Search for Success leaves the streets littered with corpses. Teen suicides, homicides, financial scams, white collar crimes, family break ups are the tragic consequences of the winner takes it all worldview. The pressures around us are too scary. No one’s allowed not to win. By making defeat so ignominious, we are forcing losers to lose sight of life. Courage, heroism, dignity in defeat, the power to learn from one’s mistakes are all yielding way to one thing: The Great Bootlick of Mammon.
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