Friday, April 5, 2019

Expectation, Aspiration, and the Meaning of Success

I’ve been thinking a lot about success, lately. About what it means to be successful, or to fail. Is there really such a thing as objective success or objective failure, or is the experience of success and failure inherently subjective?

I mean, there are some people whose names immediately come to mind when we talk about success. The rockstars, the famous actors, and the tech billionaires who seem to be making millions on their way out of the womb, for example.

Likewise, there are those who are almost universally considered to be failures. Beggars, unemployed and/or homeless people, and depending on where you live, even people working in certain industries which are known for providing low-wage, dead end jobs.

But as we all know, the problem with this assessment is that the same person may be successful at one point in their life and unsuccessful at another.

An employed person may lose their job and fail to find another one for a variety of reasons, including technological advancement or an economic downturn. Likewise, someone who was unemployed for a number of years may find a job due to a proliferation of employment opportunities in the area, even if nothing about that person has changed fundamentally.

On the other hand, you can be both successful and unsuccessful at the same time, in different areas of your life. Say you got a divorce and landed a promotion on the same day. Would you then feel like a success or a failure? Or some unfathomable mixture of the two that is the human experience in a nutshell?

The Three Types of Success

From what I can tell, there are three main varieties of success. You can have all three at the same time, of course, and then you’d be in an enviable position indeed. You could also have one or more of them, but not all.

The first type of success may be described as social success, in that other people (the society) consider you to be successful. This is the most objective type of success. When Mark Zuckerberg became the youngest self-made billionaire in his twenties, more or less everybody agreed that he had achieved some level of success.

Not that success always needs to be that spectacular, of course. Most eminent lawyers, doctors, businessmen, actors, and various other professionals have some level of social success, in that most people in the society would consider them to be reasonably successful individuals.

This is the type of success teachers and parents tell us we would get if we study hard and score well in exams. And for the most part, they aren’t wrong about that.

And then, there is the more subjective type of success, which we may call personal success. This is what you get when you achieve a goal that you had set for yourself, whether or not the external world places any value on that goal. This is the type of success that is the most emotionally rewarding, though it may or may not be especially lucrative.

Obviously, the two can overlap. If becoming a doctor was your life-long dream, then you will achieve both personal and social success when you finally get a hold of that medical degree. You will get the sense of euphoric satisfaction from having achieved your most cherished personal goal, as well as the social validation of having a respectable and well-paid career ahead of you.

But that needn’t always be the case. You can achieve personal success even without any external validation. Imagine you've been trying to master a particular recipe, or organize an event which has proved to be particularly difficult.

When you finally manage to make that perfect dish, or the event goes smoothly without the slightest hitch, you would still experience that rush of euphoria, that feeling of accomplishment, although society at large may not consider it to be a grand achievement.

For me personally, I was happier when I sold a copy of my book on Amazon for the first time, for a little less than a dollar, than when I got my first salary around the same time, which was a lot more money for a lot less work.

So personal success is determined more by your inner compass than any external benchmarks.

And just as they can often overlap, personal and social success can at times be almost antithetical to one another. For instance, I left a higher paying, more prestigious position in another city for a less lucrative job in my hometown, because that allowed me to accomplish a personal goal that I’ve had all my life: writing novels.

Had I chosen to take the better job offer, I would’ve had to sacrifice that personal ambition, or at least put it on the backburner for the time being. Hence, I had a choice to make...between being successful in the eyes of others or doing the thing that made me feel successful and accomplished in my own eyes.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer to this. There are just choices to be made. And the right decision for me might not be the ideal choice for someone else. Only you can decide what is right for you, depending on your own desires and circumstances.

And now we come to the third aspect of this elusive thing called success – circumstances. When we overcome the particular adversities of our life and improve our own condition, we have achieved circumstantial success. This may have nothing to do with what society views as success, or even our own passions or ambitions.

For example, I have struggled with chronic procrastination throughout my life. So, maintaining a semi-regular writing habit (for over two years) feels like a huge success to me, although it may be no big deal to most people. Getting a passing grade on a paper you thought you’d fail is success, while coming in third when you were aiming to top the class is failure.

Privilege and Success

For a person born into a poor, working class family, securing an entry-level, white collar job may feel like success, although a data-entry clerk or call center employee may not be society’s definition of a success story.

Much of the time, it’s not a job or a salary package that makes us feel successful, it’s the circumstances surrounding it. For the child of an illiterate laborer, landing a clerical office job is a huge success. The same job may feel like a huge failure to the child of an affluent lawyer or doctor.

Which brings us nicely to one of the biggest points of contention in any discussion about success. The idea that only the children of the rich can be successful; that privilege paves a direct path to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.

And there are essentially two camps when it comes to this topic – let’s call them the ‘luck camp’ and the ‘hard work camp’.

The luck camp believes, more or less, that birth is destiny. If you’re born to rich parents who can provide you with a world class education and the best mentorship and opportunities, you’ll be successful. If not, you’re pretty much doomed, save for a few rags-to-riches type outliers who are the exception rather than the rule.

And then there’s the hard-work camp, which believes that people can achieve anything they want if only they are dedicated enough and work hard enough, regardless of their social or financial background.

And while both of these positions have some merit, personally, I don’t think either of them is true.

Simply because I don’t think there is any one thing labeled ‘success’ that some people get and others do not.

Because the exact same thing can be one person’s idea of roaring success and another’s notion of abject failure. When we say that only the rich and privileged can be successful, we assume that success means the same thing to everyone.

It doesn’t, though. Let’s take a bit of an extreme example as a case study, to illustrate my point.

Let’s think for a second about one of the most prominent political figures, from one of the most eminent political families in India – Rahul Gandhi.

Had a random person managed to become the president of one of the two largest political parties in the country and run for Prime Minister before fifty, he or she would most certainly have been considered a success story, even if they didn’t manage to win the election.

However, nobody considers Rahul Gandhi particularly successful for having become the president of the Indian National Congress, because everyone (including him) knows that he pretty much inherited the position.

For him to be considered a successful politician, he would (at least) need to become prime minister. Why? Because his father, grandmother, and great grandfather were all prime ministers, and anything less would be seen as a failure for him.

For most people, including politicians, prime ministership is not the minimum benchmark for success. I certainly wouldn’t think of myself as a failure if I’m not the head of government by the time I’m fifty. And I’m sure most people reading this feel the same way. (And if you’re the one person who doesn’t…Hi Rahul! Gimme a government job, pretty please?)

I’m not saying any of this because I have an axe to grind against any political party. In fact, I think Mr. Gandhi’s come a long way since his last electoral defeat in 2014. The point is, success and failure are fluid concepts, determined mostly by our own expectations and aspirations.

Aspirations, Expectations, and a Subjective View of Success

If we can achieve that which we aspire to, we feel successful. If we fail to get that which we expect, we feel like we have failed. And that, in turn, affects the way we are seen by society at large.

Of course, what we expect and what we aspire to are heavily influenced by our background and experiences. The child of a millionaire may expect to drive a Ferrari and aspire to the prime ministership, while the child of a middle-class professional may expect a desk job and a 2 BHK flat, while day-dreaming about Ferraris as he sets up his side-business.

This is because we aspire to the things that we do not see in our day-to-day life, while expecting (and taking for granted) the things that we do.

I grew up in a two bedroom, 900 sq ft apartment. So, if I suddenly had to live in a tin-roofed shanty, I’d be pretty bummed about it; and equally thrilled if I ever got to call a mansion my home. ‘Cause the former is less than I expected, and the latter more than I aspired to. 

The same 2 BHK flat can look like success to a slum-dweller whose kid has secured a government job, and failure to the millionaire whose offspring has blown his inheritance. The slum-dweller had gotten what he aspired to, while the millionaire had failed to get what he expected.

Privilege can certainly get you places, and get you there faster; but if you were born into privilege, you’ll have to go much farther to feel like a success (or for anybody else to consider you one). A clerk is successful if he was born to a sweeper and a failure if he was born to a doctor. ‘Cause success isn’t really about where you land; it’s about how far you flew.

So it’s silly, in my opinion, to say that only the children of the rich can be successful.

Is it likely that you’ll become a tech billionaire if you were born to illiterate indentured laborers? Nope. Do you have to become a tech billionaire to be considered a huge success, and to feel like one? Again, nope. Not unless you’re Zuckerberg’s kid, that is. Now that’s what you’d call a tough act to follow.

On Seeing the World through Unfamiliar Eyes

Which brings us to the next important question that crops up in most discussions about success. What if you’re the only child of a self-made billionaire and you find that you really, really like sewing scarves? Would you then be a failure if you followed your scarf-making dreams, or if you pursued your parent’s footsteps into a business you couldn’t care less about?

The problem with trying to measure success objectively is, of course, that not everybody wants the same thing.

This can be hard to grasp, sometimes, simply because we can only see the world from our own perspective, only think from inside our own head. Which makes it hard to believe that somebody could have goals and priorities that are fundamentally different from ours, and to then measure their level of success in respect to those goals.

So we opt for the simpler option instead. Which is to measure everybody by the same standards; or to be more precise, by our standards. It’s easier to believe that everybody thinks like us, than to try and think like other people and see the world through unfamiliar eyes.

So those who are very passionate about their career might believe that everybody needs to find their one true passion in order to be successful, and that anyone who hasn’t found it must be unfulfilled in their job or career. I know I’ve fallen into this trap in the past.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer; that writing was the one thing that brought me joy, fulfillment, and confidence.

That passion was such a significant part of my personality and worldview that for the longest time, I couldn’t understand how somebody could not have a passion that they wanted to pursue throughout their lives. I never really understood my fellow students, my classmates, who said they weren’t sure what they wanted to do after graduation. For me, that had never even been a question.

It was a long time before I fully understood and internalized the fact that you can have a perfectly satisfactory, fulfilling, and successful career without having an all-consuming passion for one skill-set or profession.

Many of my friends who are strongly romantic, keep telling me that the only reason I’ve never wanted to be in a relationship is because I’ve not met the ‘one’ yet; that mythical male (or female) who’s supposed to sweep me off my feet and complete my fragmented soul. You know, my soulmate.

Even today, after twenty-four years of unwavering singledom, I keep getting told that there will come a time when I’ll find the ‘one’ with whom I’m meant to spend the rest of my life, and fall head over heels in love with them. ‘Don’t worry, he’s out there somewhere. You won’t be alone.’

It’s said like a reassurance, as if ending up alone is something I’m afraid of. It’s not. I think I’m awesome company!

And I never understood the point of wanting to share your life with one particular person anyway, and still don’t. I mean, I obviously want to have people around me whom I love and want to spend time with, and who hopefully feel the same way about me. But I don’t see why that person needs to be a romantic partner. I could just as happily share my life with a bunch of friends and family members.

But that’s just me, and I’m happily weird that way. Hell, I never even understood how going on a date was supposed to be different from going out with a friend, or what you were supposed to do differently or why (well, apart from the end result, I suppose). I still have a very fleeting grasp on the subject.

The thing is, though, I don’t think any of the people who gave me all those reassurances about the inevitability of romance in my life had anything but the best of intentions, even though it did tend to get annoying every now and then.

After years of chafing against those presumptions, I’ve come to realize that the idea of not wanting someone to spend your life with is as foreign to them, as the idea of not knowing what you’re passionate about is to me. It almost doesn’t compute.

Which means that anyone who doesn’t feel the same way – who doesn’t feel that urgency to get what we so badly want – must be missing some essential ingredient to the recipe for success and fulfillment. Something that they should try and find as soon as possible. Ergo, anyone who has all the things we want, must be successful. And anyone who doesn’t has obviously failed.

Because that black and white worldview is simpler than trying to accept and internalize the fact that not everyone wants the same things.

The person stuck in a boring, dead end job may not be there because they have no other options. Instead, they might just care more about living in the same city as their friends, than having a higher income. The quiet, middle-aged man living alone may not be a bitter loner left behind by his loved ones. He might just really like his own company. Someone living in a tiny flat might be incapable of buying a larger one, or they might just be too lazy to do the housework needed to maintain a big living space.

People want different things from life. Not everybody has (or wants) a soulmate, or a passion, or a lot of money. You could want all of these things, or none. But then, is somebody a failure for not getting something they never wanted in the first place? Or can we call someone a success for having something they don’t particularly want, but which others would kill for?

Without any clear goalposts, how can we know when someone has scored a point in the game of life? And when someone has achieved true success?

Success and the Education System

Perhaps one of the reasons why there is so much confusion about what constitutes success, is that we are never actually told how to conceptualize, define, or identify it. We are always told, from a very young age, that success is something that we must achieve. However, we never learn what exactly it is that we are supposed to be chasing.

Can you visualize success? What does it look like? A sleek car and a large house? Cocktails on a beach? No alarm clocks on your bedside table? Personally, I’d take that last one over anything else in a jiffy!

But the point is, most of us don’t know the answer to that question. But how can you find something when you don’t know what it is you’re looking for?

We know we need to study hard and work smart in order to be successful. But what happens when we finally find that success? How would we even know if we’ve found it, when we don’t know what it looks like?

Or is it that there is no finish line after all, and success is always just a little more than whatever you happen to have right now?

Schools and colleges do an excellent job of teaching us how to be productive wealth-creators. Maybe because productivity and the resultant money are the only measures of success we really understand, because they are the most easily measured. 

On Prioritizing Well-being

After twenty-plus years of education, most of us know how to go about getting a job. What we often don’t know – are never taught – is how to manage our own emotions, our relationships, or even our day-to-day lives. Why? Cause no one thought those were subjects worth teaching in a forty-minute class.

Parents will pay huge amounts of money to hire private tutors who’ll teach their kids about set theory and the history of medieval Europe. But many of them wouldn’t spend a dime to teach the child about mental health, self-care, or relationship building.

This is not to say, of course, that Pythagoras' theorem and Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo are unimportant or should not be taught at school. But that knowledge is only useful when it builds upon a foundation of intellectual clarity, emotional stability, and effective self-management skills.

Because to be successful, you have to first understand what success means to you, how to go about getting it, and how that journey will be affected by your personality, circumstances, and relationships.

Neither Pythagoras nor Napoleon will come to your rescue if you reach the end of this arduous journey only to realize – too late – that the destination isn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Poetry: Populist Prejudice – Politics in the Land of Automation

What’s an ideologue without an ideology?
The populist messiah of a jobless democracy.
The man of the people rages against the corrupt elite,
We’ll march against foreigners, ’cause we can’t lynch machines.

They hate us, we hate them, there’s not much else to do;
When the employment exchange closes shop, ’cause employers are too few.
He can’t offer jobs, but at least he’s found us a cause,
Policy drowns in a sinking economy, sentiment swims on fiery applause.

A dictator in the making, or a martyr for the cause,
Sacrificing immigrants on the altar of the automation gods.
Who wants mechanical enemies, when you can have flesh and blood?
Brown skin, blue eyes, all dying in the mud.

First they came for the factories, next they’ll come for the cars;
Universal basic income, but your basic is my farce.
Newsmen say the youth are rioting for their rights,
Might a charismatic demagogue lead an army of Luddites?

Can a dictator be elected, deception legalized?
If robots serve at diners, can prejudice be enfranchised?
A system fueled by the desperation of the masses
If there’re no jobs to be had, we’ll buy a war with our taxes.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poetry: Of Public Buses and Rainy Days

Lightning split the sky and thundered,
Electric blue the gray clouds sundered;
The rickety minibus skidded on wet concrete,
Weaving through rush-hour traffic on city streets.

It smelt like wet leather and misery,
Dripping seats and handholds slippery;
The crowd converged as the tires screeched,
They pushed and they clawed till the door was reached.

The rain beat down on fatigue-bent shoulders,
The burnt out faces of overtaxed householders;
Boots stepped on sandals and cheap heels broke,
The vehicle lurched forward, the engine belched smoke.

A briefcase-wielding pensioner came running after,
Waved, shrieked obscenities, bellowed at the conductor;
Hanging by the door, the young men laughed,
Time’s up, they conveyed on the conductor’s behalf.

He yelled, he ran, he lunged for the door–
The steps had been rained on, mud-slick the floor;
Fingers found the handlebar, a boot touched the metal step,
A single slip, lost footing, a tiny misstep.

Run over, roadkill, accident case,
All that remained – bones jutting from mangled flesh;
Crimson rainwater clogged the gutters,
Onlookers gathered, heads bobbing, prayers muttered.

The bus sped away, the next due in five,
The crowd will be ready when this one arrives.
Some flesh under wheels is the price we pay,
For four walls, four meals, and a salary day.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Poetry: Bleeding Through the Year in Verse

It’s been a difficult year,
You wrote me a song and told me it’s over.
It’s been a treacherous year,
Every conversation’s been feeling like a hostile takeover.

Having dinner on the frontlines,
Sharing a drink across enemy lines;
Across the dining table I fire a shot
The bullet ricochets, your sigh an afterthought. 

An unforgiving year, ‘cause you won’t tell me what’s wrong;
What to forgive and where to start.
Won’t sing me a melody, won’t write me a song,
That doesn’t end with your pen through my heart.

The days bleed together, ‘cause you won’t answer my calls,
Won’t return fire, but this ceasefire, cuts worse than our fiercest wars.
They tell me to sing, but I can’t hold a tune without your name on it;
Can’t envision a future, and the past is still bleeding where we split.

It’s been a terrifying year, ‘cause I’m still jumping at the shadows,
Of your disappointment, the discontent that you compose.
An inconceivable year, ‘cause God, this isn’t how we were meant to end;
In bitterness and outrage, to the warfront of silence condemned.

But maybe you’ll say something, if I sing loud enough;
Maybe you’ll hold up a shield if I fire another shot.
So I’ll smile and I’ll croon and I’ll twirl, till I’ve come undone
Brought you down or choked on the melody you forgot. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fatigue, Failure, and Burnout: A Crash Course in Adulting

Burned out. That word pretty much summarizes my state of mind right now.

I don’t even know why I feel this way, really. I don’t have the most leisurely life on earth, but my life’s far from being unmanageable.

I have a pretty stable job with a relaxed work environment, and a reasonably supportive family to come home to. So why am I feeling like a drowned rat?

Well, information overload should certainly shoulder part of the blame.

Over the past year, I’ve been reading every book and watching every video I could get my hands on, that had anything to do with productivity, success, digital marketing, novel writing, or publishing. And I’ve gotten some fantastic advice and bucketfuls of motivation.

Plus, I’ve had more epiphanies than I can count in these last few months.

Getting a Handle on Life is Hard Work

I returned home after finishing university in May, 2017. And I could not be happier with the progress I’ve made since then. I feel like a completely new person now, in terms of everything I’ve learned about writing, storytelling, book-marketing, brand building, blogging, and self-publishing – all this while holding down a full-time job and learning the ropes of corporate life.

So it’s not that I feel I haven’t learned or grown enough. It’s just that I feel like, no matter what I do, no matter how far I go, it will never be enough. I feel as though I’m always running to catch up, and no matter the distance I cover, the goal-post just keeps moving further and further away.

There’s no dearth of information on the Internet. Hell, people have published entire step by step guides to success, about how they achieved their goals and succeeded in their chosen profession; how they built an audience online and started making a full-time living from their writing. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to have access to all these resources at the click of a button.

The Never-Ending To-Do List

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because there’s so much to do, you never feel like you’ve done enough.

If I write a thousand words a day, the next moment I’ll read an article or watch a video by someone who regularly writes two thousand words before breakfast.

If I start a blog, I’ll read an article about the importance of an email list, and if I start an email list I’ll watch a video about how the software I’m using is on its way out and really I should have signed up for a different emailing software and used a pop-up on my blog to get better conversion rates.

And after I’ve done all that, I still can’t be sure if I’ve done anything right. If any of it is going to work or if I missed out on some essential element that will bring the whole thing crashing down.

Uncertainty and the Fear of Failure

There are so many blueprints to success that they all get jumbled up together until the whole structure looks like it’s gonna collapse with a resounding bang any second now.

Will something that worked in 2013 work as well in 2018? Or is blogging old now, and what really matters is having a YouTube channel? Will that work? Does it matter? Can we ever know?

I suppose this blog post is my attempt at getting some kind of catharsis. I’m talking to myself as much as I am to anyone who might be reading this.

I’ve never considered myself technologically savvy. Nor have I ever believed that I had any particular talent in the realm of marketing, or finance, or graphic design for that matter.

Hell, a year ago I could hardly have a phone conversation with a stranger without having a semi panic attack. Sometimes, I still can’t.

Fake It Till You Make It

And yet, building an online business requires me to do all of that, and then some. And not just to do these things, but to do them well. To do them like an expert. And all the while writing two or more books a year.

Well, that’s what the online guides and tutorials say, anyway.

And it isn’t that I haven’t managed any of them. I have, in fact, ticked off quite a few boxes on that list. The only problem is that the list is ever expanding. So every time you tick off one box, four more appear at the end of it, taunting you with the empty little space inside the square.

The space where a tick should have been, if only you were a little more hard-working, a little more diligent, a little more committed.

But commitment’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

Especially when you’re not sure of the outcome of your efforts. When you’re not sure what it’s all leading up to, or if it’s leading up to anything at all.

Sometimes, I feel like that’s the worst part, the uncertainty of it. To an extent, I guess this boils down to the education system that we all grew up in.

Life Has No Annual Exams

In school and college, you studied what was there in the syllabus and you took a test based on that syllabus.

And you either passed or failed that test, there was no third option. If you failed, you studied the same syllabus again and took the same test once more, hoping for a better outcome this time. If you passed, you went on to the next class, studied a new syllabus and then took a test answering questions on that.

The point isn’t about the quality of the syllabus, it’s about the certainty of outcome.

For the first 15-20 years of our lives, we have very little experience with uncertainty. You’re on a ladder and you always know where the next step is, and what you have to do to get on it.

You know the syllabus that you have to cover when studying, the day on which you have to take the test, and the marks that you have to score in order to pass.

And I’m not saying any of that is easy. All I’m saying is that it is what it is.

There are only two options: either you pass or you fail. If you fail, you study the same material all over again and try to do better next time. If you pass, you go up to the next class and prepare for the next examination.

But no matter what, there always IS another class to get to, another test to study for.

You may like it or you may hate it, but you’re never at a loss for what to do next. You’re never confused about whether or not you’re on the right path, because for those 15 years (barring very few exceptions) there is only one path.

Am I Wasting the Best Years of My Life?

So you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re wasting all this time (and maybe even money) chasing an impossible dream. Whether or not there’s something better you could be (or should be) doing with your time.

Whether or not any of it will be worth it in the end.

And of course, there’s no way to know any of that. Uncertainty is the only constant in life, and it’s pretty much the only thing we’re never taught to contend with during our formative years.

And I wonder sometimes if that’s part of the reason why we’re so afraid to follow our dreams, to work on our passions. Why it’s so much easier – at least in the short term – to do what everyone tells us to do.

To get the degree your parents want you to get and take the highest paying job you can get your hands on during campus placements.

Why Dreaming is Scary  

I mean, that degree and that job mightn’t bring us happiness, but they are safe. And I don’t mean financial safety, though that is a part of it. What I mean is emotional safety, which is as important, if not more.

Because you see, if we fail at a job we never truly wanted or liked in the first place, well, we can blame it on circumstance. Family issues, inflation, shrinking job market, excess competition. Take your pick.

But if we fail at our passion? At the one thing we’ve always wanted to do? Now that’s scary, because then, we’ve truly failed. Then, we can no longer be the victims of circumstance. Then we’re the captain of our own ship. And if that ship sinks? Well, we’re going down with it.

Or it feels like that, anyway. And that’s scary as hell.

The Drawbacks of Captaining Your Dream Boat

Setting a goal, by definition, means defining the criterion for failure. When we say what we want, we simultaneously make a statement, whether knowingly or otherwise, about what we don’t want.

To then not get the thing we’re aiming for is failure. And failure is never more painful than when it’s associated with the one thing we want more than anything else; our passion, our dream.

It’s much safer to leave our dreams in the realm of eternal potential.

Much more comforting to say I want to be a writer, than to say I’ve written 64,000 words for the manuscript I’m about to trash, because I don’t know where to go from here. To say that I’ve written three full manuscripts that’ve all been uniformly rejected by every agent and publisher. To say I self-published a book that didn’t sell twenty copies because I didn’t know the first thing about marketing.

Because you can’t fail at wanting to be a writer. But you can very much fail at finishing a good manuscript, getting picked by an agent, and making sales on Amazon.

Dealing with Success and Failure

So when we try any of those things, we’re defining criterion for failure. We’re telling everyone – and more importantly, ourselves – that this is what I’m trying to get. And if I don’t get it? Well, then I’ve failed.

And that’s terrifying. So terrifying, it can paralyze us.

Especially when we’re not used to dealing with uncertainty, with the sting of failure, the possibility of getting knocked down.

And when you’ve grown up seeing the world in binaries – through the lens of pass or fail – it can be hard to see that you can be getting closer to your goal even as you fail.

It can be hard to see that writing an unfinished bad novel is a necessary stepping stone to completing a good one. That publishing a book that doesn’t sell is essential for learning how to publish one that does. That getting rejected by publishers is the only way you’ll ever learn how to write, publish, and market a book all on your own, before starting to write the next one.

When you’re used to studying from a syllabus, the endless possibilities of life can come as a damn rude shock.

I mean, what do you do when you can literally do anything?

There Can Be Such a Thing as Too Many Choices

Do you focus on the corporate job, or try to get a traditional publishing deal, or try your luck in the confusing maelstrom of the indie-publishing world? Or some disconcerting, burnout-inducing, combination of all the above?

That’s the dilemma.

And that’s the one thing the study-the-syllabus-and-take-the-exam system doesn’t teach us. How to deal with dilemmas.

As I write this today, I’m sleep deprived and have ache-y arms from hanging off the grab-handles of an overcrowded bus for more than an hour on my way back from work.

At the end of a hectic day, did I want to sit down and write this post?

Hell no.

Was there something more interesting I could’ve been doing? Hello, Netflix! Was there something more lucrative? Hey there, freelance writing!

There’re no more tests to pass, so every moment is a test. Every decision you make will add or subtract a point from your final marksheet. And there is no syllabus to tell you which parts of the book of life you need to memorize to pass this exam.

The Perks of Indecision

Should you do the thing that you want to do, but which doesn’t pay well? Or the thing that you don’t particularly want to do but will add to your bank account? Or is doing anything at all a waste of time in a meaningless universe wherein the only truth is Netflix?

Honestly, right now, I’m leaning heavily toward that last option.

You know, I would’ve liked to have ended this post with a solution, a nice concluding paragraph wrapping everything up and laying out the answers to the questions I’ve brought up throughout this article. Anybody who knows me knows how much I hate cliffhangers.

But the thing is, I don’t know what the answer is to any of this stuff. What’s more, I don’t even know if I’ll ever find out. Most probably not.

But that’s okay.

On this test, I’m giving myself the freedom to fail.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

An Excess of Romance: Why We Need More Focus on Platonic Relationships in Fiction

Romance. I don’t think there’s much that I can say about it that hasn’t been said already.

Stories, poems, blogs and books about romance are hardly in short supply. Anything you want to know about the subject (and much that you don’t), somebody has already written about somewhere. So, you might ask, why am I writing ANOTHER blog post about romance?

Well, the answer to that question is that I’m not. In fact, I’m writing something that’s the exact opposite.

Heh. I suppose that’s not entirely true either. I have nothing against romance in the real world. Not that I have any experience in it to present you with an informed opinion.

Today, we’re talking about fictional romance. About the ubiquity, the nigh omnipresence of romance in popular fiction.

Well, I suppose movies are more guilty of this than novels, but only marginally.

Romance – It’s EVERYWHERE!!

Let’s get something out of the way from the get-go. I’m not against a well written romantic novel, or a funny and engaging rom-com for that matter. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the fact that creators seem to feel the need to shoehorn in random bits of romantic subplot into stories that otherwise have absolutely nothing to do with romance.

I mean you could simply remove the romance – rip it clean out of the narrative – and nothing would change. It wouldn’t impact the story in any way whatsoever. Want an example? Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Many hard-boiled crime/detective fiction has this problem of undeveloped and unnecessary romantic subplots being shoehorned in, so it’s not like I’m picking on Dan Brown here.

Angels and Demons is just the most recent novel I’ve read where I encountered this problem. Another one that comes to mind is The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Why did Locke need to be obsessed with some random woman who never makes an appearance on the page and has no role to play in the story? Who knows? It’s not as if we could have a hero without a love interest (horror of horrors)!

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan was probably my favorite book of 2018, and even that suffered from this shoehorning problem. Royce – one of the two protagonists – has a girlfriend who is also a badass prostitute and is mentioned all of five times in the first two books. Why did she need to exist? Well, I’m still waiting to find out.

It’s not even that I dislike romantic subplots. In fact, they can be very well done in some stories. Think Peter and El’s relationship in White Collar and compare it to the non-existent chemistry between Aragorn and Arwen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Sigh.

So why do creators – be they novelists or showrunners or moviemakers – feel the need to insert incongruent romantic subplots into their stories, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense?

Everybody loves romance! Or do they???

One reason could be that romance is universally relatable, so it increases the potential target audience of the story. I mean, you may not be a big fan of classic medieval fantasy but might still watch the LoTR movies because of Arwen and Aragorn and their relationship. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

The problem is, though, that this doesn’t really work.

I mean, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of good romantic fiction out there. There are thousands upon thousands of excellent (and some not-so-excellent) romantic novels and movies; created by people who are genuinely interested in the subject and enjoy writing about it.

So why would a reader who is genuinely interested in the romantic aspect of the story, forgo all of that great literature to read a half-assed attempt at romance inserted into a storyline that would not just have survived, but thrived without it?

Nobody reads Dan Brown for the romance. Angels and Demons would have done just as well had Vittoria Vetra been Langdon’s long-lost sister.

Which is not to say, of course, that writers and storytellers should not portray romantic relationships in their stories unless it serves some kind of a crucial plot related purpose.

Romance is a part of life for most people, and a character can have a love interest even if the love interest doesn’t really add anything to the story, just like they can have a mother, father, brother, or pet dog that doesn’t add much to the story.

The problem arises when it becomes almost a cardinal rule of storytelling that the main character MUST have a love interest, regardless of what else the story is about.

A Single-Minded Focus

I’m not saying there aren’t stories with absolutely no romance in them. Of course, all rules have exceptions. But it’s hard to find a popular piece of fiction, written in recent times, where the main character doesn’t have a love interest of some sort.

If Poirot had been created in the 2010s, you can be damn sure he would have had a long-lost girlfriend (or boyfriend) tucked in there somewhere!

And that wouldn’t be a problem if this exclusive focus on romantic couplings hadn’t sidelined all other types of relationships. Platonic relationships, even those as fundamental as parent-child or sibling relationships, are often overlooked and glossed over in favor of devoting page-time to a romance that may or may not add anything to the story.

The Sidelining of Platonic Relationships

Of course, there are exceptions to this too. Supernatural, one of the most popular (and long running) TV shows of recent times, is all about the relationship between two brothers, their trials, tribulations and triumphs.

But that is definitely more an exception than a rule.

Even with the recent rise in the popularity of on-screen ‘bromances’, far fewer shows, films or books focus heavily on platonic relationship dynamics at the cost of romantic ones.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in BBC’s Sherlock, where a canonically aromantic character such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was romantically ‘shipped’ with multiple characters by the showrunners throughout the four seasons of the show. The same can be said for Elementary, Sherlock’s American counterpart.

It got to the point where even Mycroft, Sherlock’s nigh-omniscient and borderline robotic older brother, wasn’t spared the shipping treatment in the final few episodes of the BBC show.

The Increasing Diversity in Fictional Romance

Of course, one must give credit where credit is due. And while romance is everywhere, at least it’s now far less monochromatic and homogenous than it was before.

While it’s still not very common, it wouldn’t be absolutely shocking and unimaginable to see (or read about) a lead character in a same-sex relationship of the romantic variety. Case in point, one of the characters that BBC’s eponymous Sherlock was relentlessly ‘shipped’ with, by both the showrunners and the fans, was Dr. John Watson, his best friend and companion from the original novels and short stories.

Which again, brings us neatly around to the point about the glossing over of platonic relationships in favor of romantic ones.

Perhaps the fact that I am aromantic has something to do with my fatigue with the oversaturation of romance in fiction. It certainly does have a role to play, in all probability.

But mostly, I’m tired of seeing the same old tropes reused over and over again by people who very obviously don’t even care about the tropes themselves, and are only adding them in because they somehow feel like they have to.

There are romantic subplots that I still enjoy, but they’re few and far between. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is a good example of a story that properly integrates the romance with the plot without making it feel contrived.

But you know what I’d really like at this point?

A Break from the Constant Barrage

A main character who doesn’t give a flying fuck about getting the girl (or the guy), and has, you know, goals and aims that do not revolve around the desire to stick their tongue down somebody else’s throat. That’d be a nice change of pace, wouldn’t it?

It’s not even that they have to be aromantic or asexual or anything like that (though a little representation here and there wouldn’t be totally unwelcome). But that isn’t the point. At least not for me, and not at this moment.

The point is to explore relationships that don’t necessarily end with the participants getting into each other’s pants.

Not as viscerally satisfying, perhaps, but certainly quite emotionally rewarding when done well. Theft of Swords got this right with the relationship between friends and partners-in-crime, Royce and Hadrian.

I haven’t finished the series yet, but I would pay to see Brent Weeks spend more page-time developing the relationship between Kip and his father/uncle Gavin, rather than the tired old bodyguard romance between Gavin and Karris.

And dear Lord and Terry Pratchett, could we have a sequel to Good Omens? Pretty please?!!

My Own Struggles with Romantic Subplots

And it’s not that I haven’t tried writing romance myself. Believe me, I have! But for me personally, it always felt like being on the outside looking in. And not with a clear enough view to do justice to the genre or bring much by way of authenticity to the table.

So when I started writing my second novel, I decided to forgo any romantic subplots. Which wasn’t an easy decision at the time; not with the market flooded with romance-laden fiction in every genre.

For a time, I genuinely believed that nobody might want to read a book with no romance in it.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? There are already plenty of books with plenty of romance in them. And better written romance than anything I could hope to produce. So why would a romance enthusiast come my way to satisfy their cravings for literary liaisons anyway?

And maybe I didn’t need everyone under the sun to like my stories. Maybe, all I needed was to be true to myself, and by extension, to maybe be true to the people who agree with me about this particular topic.

Authenticity versus Popularity

I mean, surely I can’t be the only person who’s been dying to read about a solid friendship surrounded by all the magic, mayhem and badassery that the mind can handle!

Surely, there are other people out there who find the development and growth of an interesting platonic relationship as engaging as that of a romantic one.

And if not? Well, at least I would have written a novel that I wanted to read.

Which is not to say that I will never write about romantic relationships, of course. Just that I wouldn’t do so just to tick a box by inserting a cliché love story into a novel that doesn’t need it, and isn’t enriched by it in any way.

And if that means I’m not casting as wide a net as I could have for my projects? Well, at least I’d be casting a more authentic one, and hopefully a more interesting one as well!

And if at some point in the future, I feel like there’s a romantic story that I just HAVE to tell? Oh well, blog posts can always be edited, can they not?
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