Conversations 17: An Update on My Life
I am currently in Manila. It is good to be back here after almost four years, and meet old friends and new people. Most of the people I meet here, I met them first time for business reasons (I met others through them, so that was business too). However, now that I have no obvious business proposition to meet them, I still feel like seeing them - and they do too. I would like to believe this is a very Asian thing, but perhaps not, because the same thing happens to me in England too: I meet people without business reasons, or at least, without ones that are apparent. While this may sound incredibly pointless to some of my more business-minded associates, I have come to realise that this is my style. I don't meet people to do business, I meet people and then may end up doing business with them.
For those who may wonder why I am not very successful in my business career, this should be an easy explanation: That I don't begin with an end in mind. If I appear to lack a sense of urgency, or not focus on closure, this may be the reason. I have become all too aware of it too, after my initial attempts to get my business off the ground came to nothing. And, struggled internally, indeed: There are days when I would get up and want to be business-like (I do play such silly games with myself); and indeed, I am reminded of this umpteen times by my family, friends and colleagues, those who sincerely care about me, that if I can achieve this, I shall be very successful.
Yet, after the occasional bouts of self-awareness, I get back again to my usual ways. And, this is not about laziness - I put in more hours at work as anyone, and involved in what I do to the point of obsessiveness - but about being comfortable with myself. I have lately developed a thesis - I treat people as ends in themselves, never as a means to something else - but this thesis is only new, and as one would suspect, comes from my recent exposure to Immanuel Kant. The attitude is indeed older than the thesis, and this may have come from my growing up years, spent not in business-like environment, but with lots of relatives, cousins and people: Then, even if I wanted to be business-like, I wouldn't have know what business I would have out of them.
This confession, surely, would disqualify me from being an entrepreneur, and fail me any qualifying examination Venture Capitalists take these days of prospective investees. They want those who sold candies to their brothers or wrote up essays for their seniors to make enough money. I have always shared candies with my brothers, just like all the other mere mortals, and shared classnotes with my friends because they did the same for me. Only lately I realised that even those fairly commonplace actions are not valued in my chosen path - that of being an entrepreneur - and I am indeed wholly unsuitable. I have, therefore, rather lately started developing my thesis - people as an end - almost to counter the onslaught of a different kind of morality aimed at drowning my very average ways of doing things.
But this also gives me the realisation that I am living someone else's life. The only reason I even bothered to try to be an entrepreneur because I wanted to change the way the world around me works. I bought into the idea that it is possible. It is literature and politics that made me interested in such possibility, but given my standard middle class life, I sought to find the change through my work. Being early on the Internet, enjoying the connections and camaraderie that came with those early, imperfect, technologies, I really believed that this is a new frontier where people could matter again. I enjoyed connecting up with people who I wouldnt meet otherwise, and learning about things I wouldn't learn otherwise. I started dreaming about traveling the world because of Internet, because suddenly the far looked near. If I developed the idea that my life will be spent in an quixotic enterprise to change the world, as it looks like right now, it came from those days of green command prompts. All I was after is to expand my suburban universe of friends, conversations, ideas and passions - to include everyone! This was before people made a lot of money on the Internet and turning it into a technology thing.
But, back to the future, because those pasts dont matter because they were never really there. Just as people looking into the working of atoms to understand the wonders of the universe never realised that those paying the money wanted to unleash those terrible energies for a different purpose, to use it against humanity and nature, and those utopian ideas about Internet was just that, utopian (which, despite the techno-visionary zeal of our age, still is a hate word). I have moved on, got wiser, did and failed in dotcom, and tried and failed again. I guess the two things that happened to me in these saga of failures is that I have traveled quite a bit (if my friendships in Philippines is any evidence, I traveled on my own terms) and I have got wiser to understand that lots of what we hear isn't really true.
Like, the entrepreneurs change the world! That is a sales pitch, and as honest and material as any sales pitches. It matters, because people buy into this - but it does not change the world, because that is not the objective. Buying my groceries online and getting it delivered at home by some underpaid worker is not changing the world (as a dear friend used to say back in the 90s, when you buy potato online, that will be the day of the Internet): the world changes when everyone can have a square meal a day. Entrepreneurs don't change the world, they just change what changing the world may mean. And, people like me, too cowardly to do anything more significant, too comfortable with our middle class life, too sensitive to what other people around us will say, just console ourselves by joining this crowd, who would expropriate all the dreams of a better world just to make it worse!
One may say this is the rant of one that failed. I shall deny I even tried - and that has always been the criticism I received - but even if one comes to realise this through failure, that's good enough. In fact the problem is that people don't, they can't: The greatest thing about the traveling I am doing now is that it allows me to escape, not just my failure but also my comfort, and lodge me in distant places where, even with all my friends and contacts, I have enough discretionary time to think about what the past has come to, and what the future should be.
And, in a dark moment like this, it is very tempting to buy into the Foucauldian vision that there is no point trying: Resistance is pointless, because even if one resists this structure of power, it only legitimises the very thing it is resisting. The monster changes shape: It is not like the stupid godzila tearing through the city, but the unjust world we are trying to resist is more like the ever-changing clayface. But the point is not battling, but resisting, as Gandhi would have realised: The evil that one is fighting in these modern face-offs is not really out there - there is no villain, just injustice - but inside, because we are all participants. As he would have said, once one realises, it is resistance to getting drawn into the same vortex of injustice and oppression - memorably 'being the change that you want to see in the world' - is the way to make one free. And, that is - freeing myself - an achievable goal!
Enough banter, but that's what I wanted to do: A change in life is warranted. A fundamental change rather than a cosmetic one, like a change of job (I have just changed one). My way of resistance is to cultivate a different set of values and stop looking for jobs, stop trying to be an entrepreneur and look for the next big thing in life. To be able to change, to imagine anew, to be able to defy, to be able to create - all those used-up, perverted rhetoric, dime-a-dozen thrown to us by the publicists of the silicon valley - have a different connotation, a truer meaning, one that I was in search of. I feel ready to be bold - I feel empowered to try to find it.