Friday, July 10, 2015

The Path to Professionalism

While chatting with one of my friends this morning, I made a casual remark: "Disillusionment is the first step towards professionalism." Hm. I feel like patting myself for saying that. :)

We all have dreamt of attaining greatness in so many ways! How many of us really get anywhere close to becoming great? Let me talk about myself. At some or the other point in my life, I have wanted to do all of the following:

  • Become a great writer.
  • Become a great scientist.
  • Become a great singer.
  • Become a great artist.
  • Become a great teacher.
  • Become a great engineer/programmer.

I am usually called quite versatile by most people I know, just because I have become all of the above. Just remove the 'great' part of it. In other words, I can't claim greatness in anything as such. But, I have done most of the above list for a very long time, year after year. And I have continued to enjoy doing them. And for that, I claim some credit.

On the way to do anything non-trivial, disillusionment is the first and biggest milestone. Disillusionment comes in various forms. Let me try and list some of them:

  • It's difficult, physically/mentally/financially expensive.
  • It's 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.
  • If I don't finish it, it slides back to zero in no time. There's no way to build on my earlier work. It requires one heroic effort.
  • I am not that good in it.
  • Nobody cares.
  • The people I used to admire have turned out to be fakes.
  • I have to work with scoundrels who have no work ethics.

Some Examples

Let me give a couple of examples from my experience. 

Being a Scientist

My childhood image of a scientist was that of a chemist mixing colourful fluids with each other and creating funny fumes and explosions. That image was kind of cool. That image didn't have the various other components of chemistry in it: the eternal pungency of a chemistry lab, the taste of chemicals, the Ketone burns, the ever imbalanced chemical equations, the low grades ... While I gradually came to terms with the idea that I didn't have much of a future in Chemistry, I was fortunate to get exposed to other forms of science where my disillusionments weren't severe enough to kill my wish to continue with them. I continued in the path of science, but came across bigger and bigger disillusionments. You have to get good grades every time. You have to publish and keep publishing. You have to be visible. You have to continuously keep working hard to prevent yourself from getting caught in the vortex of anonymity. Sometimes, just in order to avoid being completely ignored, you have to fake interest and knowledge in some subjects. In conferences, you have to flock around the big names of your field. You have to flash smiles, laugh at bad jokes ... sometimes, even try to look good. Anything but what you would associate with a scientist. You have to tell lies about your work to get your papers through in journals: fabricate data, force-fit cool sounding themes, spew mathematical symbols where you could as well have done without them, cite papers of authors who you know are there in the programme committee.

Of course, a counter-argument to the above is: 'You be so good that you needn't do any of the above.' I agree. And I know people who haven't possibly gone down the above path and have still done well. And I know at least one individual who, having not done that well, has still managed to keep himself clean of blemishes -- myself. But that doesn't change the overall DNA of the system: which is ruthlessly competitive, and even corrupt in certain ways. And that makes it a day to day struggle to survive in the world of science. In short, being a scientist today (or may be any time in history) is far from the cool image projected to us of an absent-minded genius free of worldly worries discovering new scientific marvels everyday. A great disillusionment!

Being a Writer

I have been writing for as long as I remember. The wish to write a book that would take the reader into a different world, would show them things they wouldn't otherwise be able to see, occurred quite early in life, as early as the first time any book did the same to me. However, writing has turned out to be a much harder thing to do than my childish fantasies allowed me to perceive. It's not merely about having a great idea to share, and some grasp over a language to express it with. It's a continuous balancing act between brevity, simplicity, relevance, glamour, cohesiveness, and a host of other concerns. Writing a page in a diary and writing a piece for someone else are two completely different things. The first draft is ready in probably the first 10% of the time you spend in writing. The remaining 90% goes in the incredibly tedious process of reading, re-reading, revising, re-arranging etc., an unending struggle to give it that ever-elusive ideal form.

If it's a book, before you even get to write it up, you have to actively involve in networking and canvassing to grab the attention of a publisher. Then, you have to fight him to prevent him from modifying your ideas beyond recognition to make your work 'more acceptable'. Afterwards, you have to go around marketing the book to get it sold. I have personally come across people -- authors -- who employ fairly disgraceful methods of getting called as authors, getting invited as guest speakers, and getting on-air time in well-publicised events just to up the probability of getting the copies of their books being picked up by prospective readers from the book-store racks.

Similarly, in this Internet age, Most readers have a infinitesimal attention span. Clicking a link to a blog post (which is a reaction to a distraction in the midst of work or other competing distractions) is not at all equivalent to picking a book from a shelf (which is an act of volition in more than one ways). So, the time available before the prospective reader gets bored, closes the browser tab and moves on to the next distraction is in the order of a few seconds. You may have to do something really drastic to turn the visitor to your blog into a reader. For example, finishing up in one screen-full, using graphics, bullet points, politically charged statements, even sleaze. An Internet reader has no patience or time for slow build-up, and elaborate analysis. He wants quick pills of instant gratification which a sedately paced work will never give him.

In short, the imaginary world in which you wish to be an author was where a good idea just needed to expressed in order for a reader to read it and appreciate it. In the real world, an author, just like a real world scientist, is competing with many others, for the attention of a reader who is already deluged with distractions. The competition for the readers' mental real-estate is so cut-throat amongst writers that you shouldn't be surprised to find resistance and rivalry instead of intellectual camaraderie between two writers. Another huge disillusionment!

The Reality

The reality is, I am still a scientist. I think about new stuff, I read, I create ... every day of my life, I go through the rigours of a scientist's life like all other scientists of the world. The visions of greatness have faded before my eyes. One may think, I mean to say that now doing science is probably nothing but a drudgery for me. I do it because I am left no other choice at this stage of my life.

The reality also is that I keep writing copious amounts. Blogs, notes, diary, letters. I have stopped likening myself to Tolstoy, Premchand and Tagore. I don't even clearly visualise my words in print form any more. Yet, I keep writing.

One may think all this quite grim. I don't. I happily feel that I have made it across the most difficult part. I have made it across the ocean of disillusionments. This journey has left me humbled, but also clear about why I do the things I do. I am clearer about what I am prepared to do and what not in order to make advances towards possible acceptance, if not greatness, in these worlds of activity: scientific or literary. I now have solid evidence that I don't do my stuff because of a fantasy of glamour and greatness. Nor merely as a means for subsistence. Rather, there's something right there in the act of doing which pulls me irresistibly to these acts, and to do them everyday, apparently thanklessly.

A professional is a person who has survived the tempests of disappointment, depression and despair, voyaging in the ocean of disillusionments. He is a person who is driven by the very love of the act he earns his bread from. In fact, I would go to the extent of asserting that unless you go through the process of seeing layers of glamour and hopes of greatness being peeled off your profession, you don't even get called a professional in it.