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Analysis: Stretch Potential

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In India, since the kitchen is a woman’s domain traditionally, and since women have been sidelined mostly, their area of work/life is also sidelined. That explains the ignorance and indifference surrounding sanitary napkins.”

Traditionally sidelined. And 99.99 per cent of our whopping population would have been so immersed in this way of ‘seeing’ or experiencing women, that her predicament is simply taken for granted. 

Often people, and the cultures they generate, tend to maintain the status quo in a way that does not question tradition. They have typically arrived at a way of doing things that is so ‘accepted’ that they feel no need to change. What is, is. It requires bravehearts, in the form of path breakers, reformers (of which we have had plenty) who question and then open up new perceptions and new directions for action.

Where would we have been without the likes of Vidyasagar, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Mother Teresa? Yet, we still have a long way to go. There is always work to be accomplished and there will always be the need for people who will go against the grain and heroically lead the way for the rest of us to follow. Muruga is one such person. One in a billion, so to speak. Not everyone will be like him but there are important lessons to be learnt.

The root of this type of unfolding path is the experience of an inner pain or conflict, something that deeply disturbs. It becomes hard to put it aside. It becomes an obsession. One cannot do anything other than address the issue at hand.  The interesting thing is that we all have such moments of pain, but what do we do about it? Usually nothing, even though it simmers inside for many of us.

For the few who do, it becomes an ‘epic’ journey, one that defines their every moment and one that brings with it a host of challenges or ordeals that have to be faced (the very painful rejection — albeit temporary — by his wife and mother for Muruga) and overcome. The fruits of the hero’s journey then open the way for others to follow suit and reap rich dividends.

One can see the way Muruga lived with the sheep herders (“I used to hang out with shepherd boys, looking after their goat and sheep. Mother called those my collection of bad boys. I wanted to know how they controlled 200 sheep...what sounds they spoke to the cattle...I used to stay with them, eat their food. And when I would return she would wash me down with water because I was in such company”), how the seeds of his later obsession played out even early on in his life.

Pain by itself and obsession by itself do not work as effectively, but when they combine, there is an admixture that is very potent. Such people have gone way beyond the group. They are no more regulated by the need to belong. Not unusually, they can even be considered as ‘mad’ (ref Muruga’s experiments with menstrual blood leading the village folk to declare him mad so that he had to leave his village). 

So, what is the lesson for us? To my mind, the primary question is to us as parents, educators, leaders: to what extent do we allow pain or the challenges our kids or colleagues face to surface and be spoken of? Do we not simply encourage them to push aside their challenge(s) and not engage with it? Do we communicate that challenges are bad? At what cost? We end up creating the conditions for low levels of exploration and thought.

Typically, this would encourage more conformity and not wanting to stand apart from the group because it is not OK to have a challenge. It is very instructive that those with means will find a way of having their children bypass challenge and make it easier for them to succeed.  Will they succeed?  Unlikely.  Even well known historians from the past (Arnold Toynbee, for one) have shown so clearly that the one clear impetus for growth is challenge. The less we allow ourselves to be challenged, the less we will grow. The more we make it easy for our kids, the less they will grow. Even modern day researchers like Robert Kegan have discovered that challenge is the single most important thing to ensure our ability to think and grow.

The reality is that the more we allow such engagement, in a way that is supportive, the more we are building the capability for higher levels of thought and action. 

The writer looks after the coaching practice for the APAC region of the Centre For Creative Leadership. He is currently based in Singapore

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 25-08-2014)