Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What am I?

The question fascinates us no end.

I had a phase as an outdoor educator.

In that period, I was introduced to a method used by experiential educators in leadership and team building sessions. My memory is a little foggy around the edges but I think it involved using personality and temperament – as stated by participants and corrected by fellow participants where required – to assign people to four quadrants showing distinct leadership styles. These four quadrants (we would create them on the ground using trekking poles or ropes) were deemed essential for a good team. Initially the exercise engaged for it answered the question of what I am, like a case of self-discovery. Oh…so this is what I am – there was enough in that nascent discovery, however questionable, to ruminate and reflect upon. Then problems with self-image set in.

I debuted in a quadrant meant for those who value human relations. That felt good, except – what I wished to be was something else. I wanted to be a doer. The rules of the exercise were pretty clear. A quadrant, diagonal from where you were placed would be toughest to transition to. The doer lot was diagonal to where I was. Adjacent quadrants were easier accessed. Given the model accepts that you tend to change with time, in several subsequent instances of exercise repeated, I found myself in the adjacent quadrants – some showed me up as an information gatherer and analyst of data; a few other instances showed me as a motivator.  Not once was I a doer. Damn!

To an extent the analysis was correct. The most powerful sport I ever engaged in was rock climbing. As lead climber, placing protection and opening the route, I was weak. As follower, I was good. Climbing doesn’t lie. I found myself enduring the notion – repeated for my benefit by friends – that I was adventurous only because I knew others better than me. The description denied me ownership of initiative shown. Even a hitchhiker owns his / her journey. Why deny me mine? We never spare an occasion to rub into someone that he / she achieved because they were lucky followers.  On the other hand, during the several instances when I was travelling alone or the decade I have been freelance journalist surviving on tight budget, I was a quiet doer, executing things as needed. It never landed me in anyone’s doer quadrant. Who thinks of writing and freelancing as challenge or doing?

Quadrant for membership is an easy way to address life’s pressing question: what am I? The experiential education method I was familiar with is but one of many such approaches to temporarily categorize people. Books have been written and movies made on the premise that everybody belongs to some category. And almost always the quadrant of the action hero – the doer – is a coveted spot to be in. He gets all the pretty girls. In due course, I accepted the fact that life didn’t find me a doer. Accepting it allowed me to move on. Sometimes the categorization business was fun. Once on a hike that I worked as a junior instructor, our students – all fans of the Harry Potter universe – deliberated on what maybe my house at Hogwarts. I was touched. Not because they gave me a house in the Harry Potter universe but because somebody bothered to think about me that deeply and for that long. Thank you.

J.K. Rowling isn’t the only author who dabbled in the politics of categories. The search for a category pervades all walks of existence now. One of the factors that made this tendency widespread is the rise of technology and organization; the latter triggered the ascent of management science. The combination – technology and management science – unleashed the regime of everything as measurable. Most job applications are precise, well defined exercises. If there are multiple responsibilities involved, then each is segregated and shown as a percentage of the whole. An enrollment process is designed to find the best fit for an opportunity. That automatically births the notion of right mental type and category. I am uncomfortable with such certainty in the meeting grounds of technology and management science. Not for me, this use of us as emotionally dead building blocks. I am sure that in their own discreet way, organizations later seek to retain talent by allowing people to move across functional capacities. However if you want to know yourself by confronting that which you are genuinely not good at, you may need to give up employer-organization.

There is only so much any employer will be willing to lose. So you quit and go solo. Solo keeps risk and loss restricted to you. My hunch is – soloing while difficult, will amaze you by what it reveals. Personally, I think we have the potential for all those quadrants wired in us. We deliver as circumstances require. In a lifetime we journey through different circumstances. The question to pose would be: are we journeying enough to realize our potential for all the quadrants; or houses and factions as the world of fiction elects to call them? And if you can pass through all those separating walls, what are you? If that’s what you are and you are still dubbed loser, what does it say of world declining room for you?

That’s why the Divergent series engaged. Written by Veronica Roth, the trilogy was made into three movies; the last one of the series Allegiant, released in March 2016. I haven’t read the books; I saw the films. There have been many movies that leverage the interplay of what we are and what we are expected to be. The Divergent series caught my eye immediately because its premise of a dystopian citizenry assigned factions to belong to, instantly reminded me of my experiences with that experiential educators’ model to teach leadership. More important, it helped me assuage my grudges against that method by creating the idea of divergent as category, a rebel category. I am not a fan however of the purity-impurity angle built into the story with the divergent protagonist positioned as most evolved. I tap into the idea of divergent as relief from the need to be a fixed somebody.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)         

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