an outlier

 

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A statue of Buddha in Phnom Penh with a rare expression of intense concentration, unlike the serene expression one usually sees on his face

I have no idea whether most people in the world are happy with the work they do, or what drives them to do what they do.

About fifteen years ago a doctor working in the same hospital as I requested me to see her son because she was worried about his career plan. The boy was a 23-year-old graduate from one of the best engineering colleges in India. He had rejected a paying job that he got through campus placement and chosen to join an organisation that worked for the upliftment of slum dwellers, for a small monthly stipend.

He was self-assured and calm during the conversation. There were no psychiatric symptoms at all and nothing to suggest a personality disorder. He believed that what he was setting out to do was right for him. He was also clear that he wasn’t going to be a financial burden on his parents.

Subsequently I met many youngsters like him and began to realise that it wasn’t uncommon for people of this generation to do something like that.

Most people get degrees that lead to jobs. They look for jobs that pay well and give them a few perks as well. They enjoy the office atmosphere, the company of co-workers, the work itself and the pleasure of an independent income. They look forward to the future. As I said, that’s what most people do.

So who are these outliers? When someone tells me about one of them this is how it often sounds:

  • There’s no rush for him to get a job as he doesn’t have student loans, because his parents are affluent;
  • He doesn’t have to earn and save up to buy stuff because his parents gave him everything even before he thought of asking – spoilt kid, born with silver spoon, doesn’t know the value of money;
  • He knows his parents have enough assets that he will eventually inherit, so he never has to work in his life;
  • He will eventually marry a rich girl and get money from the bride’s parents as well!

When I actually get to know the youngster I discover a wholly different inner world, where none of these are on his radar. They are the minutiae of his life that he barely notices. If he is charming and relaxed I might take a little time to make sure he’s not a clever manipulator skilfully pulling wool over my eyes. Instead, he is intense and rarely cracks a smile, and never attempts to please. There’s an air of urgency and earnestness about him.

I wrote about the brain’s reward centre in my last post. It is apparent that this boy’s brain doesn’t recognise a good job and its perks as a reward. His reward centre seems to urge him to do something that makes a difference to people in need: helping the poor seems more fulfilling to him than writing code.

Did the ‘mature’ defence mechanism of altruism develop naturally in him through childhood because he was raised in a peaceful home, without much conflict with his natural empathic disposition? That is, protoaltruism of parents giving rise to generative altruism in the child. Or is this pseudo-altruism covering up his issues? Altruism is a mature defence mechanism, but a defence mechanism nevertheless.

The concept of altruism has always seemed fraught to me. Sometimes I think it’s better not to look too close when some good comes out of someone’s altruism, though I wonder if it will ultimately harm the doer, but the doer will not recognise it as harm because – wait, is he a masochist! Okay, okay, that’s enough. I simply don’t go there.

Why did Prince Gauthama leave his kingdom, palace, wife and infant son and ultimately become the much-revered Buddha? His background and the sequence of events that led to his renunciation have never been a cogent enough argument to convince me that it was a sudden decision. Maybe it was brewing in his head for years before he took the step.

Perhaps something similar happens to youngsters like the boy whose story I began this post with. A kid gets into a professional college at eighteen in India. That’s too young. In the four years at university he might discover that he isn’t cut out for it. By the time he works out what else he would rather do, four years pass and he’s in the final semester. He decides he might as well complete the course and get the degree and figure his life out later.

How people’s brains are wired is a combination of genes and environment, the way you can create many shades of green by mixing different shades of blue and yellow, adding black or white – or even orange – to get any number of shades. The phenotype doesn’t automatically tell you the genotype. How did you get this particular shade of green in this painting? No idea!

The daily newspaper has been featuring one or two ‘Lockdown heroes’ everyday. If I were to ask these generous people why they did it they might say: “I like doing this, I like helping people.” I wouldn’t want to ask, “Why do you like doing this?”

Everybody’s insides look the same on the operating table – unless there is a diseased organ – and the depths of everybody’s mind might too. So anyone’s answer to “Why do you like doing this?” is bound to disclose self-interest and take away from the warm, fuzzy, happy altruistic feeling. So, “I like doing this” should be morally good enough to qualify as untainted altruism.

To come back to the altruistic kid in question, every engineering grad doesn’t aspire to be a Nadella or a Pichai. Sure, the idea takes a little getting used to for parents, because everything you read and hear says the opposite. Parents need to believe in their youngsters and support them in finding their niche. Usually nobody has the clinching argument in these heated family discussions, neither parents nor kid, because the moot question is what will happen to the kid’s career in the – unknowable – future.