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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Imagine: Is society’s idea of success harming our children?

The idea of success is hugely problematic when from an early age, we are recruiting our children into believing that there is one right way to live their life.

Written by Shelja Sen | Published: January 25, 2020 6:05:04 am
From an early age we recruit our children into believing that there is one right way to live their life. (File photo) Depressed Indian boy sitting on floor & holding his head. Frustrated with exam pressure.

“I am going to kill myself,” is what Jahaan told me in his first session. He had been brought to me by his parents as they were concerned that he was not studying. He was 18 years old, in class 12, preparing for his board exams which he did not plan to take as according to him, “I would be dead by then”. There was a steely determination in his tone that made it evident to me that he had been thinking and possibly planning for some time. His parents, oblivious to all this, were extremely frustrated with him for being “ so lazy” and “setting himself for failure.”

He came from a family of engineers and in class 11, he had been forced to take science and enrolled in coaching classes despite his reluctance. It is the same old story — Jahaan wanted to be a filmmaker but his parents insisted that engineering would give him a “secure future”. Slowly, all things that he enjoyed were taken away from him — cricket, hanging out with friends, his camera, drums and instead he was expected to get up early in the morning to study, go to school and straight to tuitions from there, to return for more studies and then back to the same back-breaking cycle again. After all, it was his “board year” and “it would decide the rest of your life”. Ironically it had, as he had come to a decision that he did not want to live anymore.

I have met so many Jahaans where the adults in their life have decided what is better for them and they are left with a sense of despair. You might say that parents do know what is best for their kids and Jahaan would have wasted precious years of life on filmmaking and those years would have been better spent studying engineering and getting a stable job and successful life. Of course, we need to deconstruct what success means in the general sense in the society — money, promotions, fancy cars, etc. A ladder where the higher you go, the more you get. But then, why is it that so many people step off from this ladder or find that every rung up in the ladder makes them more and more miserable? The so-called success should make us happier, but in reality, it is not.

Off the chart suicide rates of IIT aspirants in Kota coaching centres should shake us out of our collective eroded stupor of what we see as the making of a” good life”. A study conducted by ASSOCHAM in 2018 (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India) found that 42.5 per cent of employees are struggling with depression and/or anxiety in their high-pressured jobs. They had possibly climbed the ladder of success and security to find it is an illusion.

This idea of success is hugely problematic as right from an early age we are recruiting our children into believing that there is one right way to live their life. It is a myth and instead I would urge you to redefine the idea of a good or I should say good enough life, with three aspects at its core — agency, purpose and connection. Let me unspool it:


Suppose, rather than telling them all the time, we started asking young people what they wanted to do in their life, about their aspirations and their dreams. Their answers might be simple, concrete and far-fetched, but that is just the beginning. It sets their intentions which works at pulling them forward with much greater force than all the pushing we adults end up doing. When I asked Jahaan what his dreams were, he told me that from the time he was little, he had been fascinated by wildlife and watching documentaries on it. He wanted to travel the world, visit wildlife parks, sanctuaries and oceans and capture them on his camera.


As Jahaan shared his dreams with me, his whole face lit up as he explained to me the different kind of cameras that wildlife photographers used, the skill required in just waiting and observing for hours, the adventure of going to remote places nobody had been to. The same boy who had walked in with such despair and determination to end his life was painting his dreams to me with such purpose and passion.


We are hard-wired for connections, for belonging, for seeking out people who will accept us the way we are, who understand us and share what we value. Jahaans of our world are locked in a constricted world of regimented classrooms, coaching classes and heavy textbooks, which does not leave much room for seeking connections, fun and laughter.

It is also important to state here that Jahaan’s parents were not some demonic, insensitive tyrants. They were well-meaning, loving parents who wanted the best for their child. They had bought into society’s propaganda of success. When we started unpacking the problem, they could step back and reflect on what they really wanted – their son’s happiness and more than that, his life.  And the turning point was when they became witness to our discussions where they watched their son come alive — what do you want to do? What does it say about your values, your dreams, your aspirations? Who are the people who matter to you?

If you want to observe a fertile ground for depression, then all that you have to do is understand how the board exams are designed in our education system. I have a daughter sitting for one, so I know what I am talking about. From November onwards all that she has been doing is taking exams – first her finals, then the preboards and followed immediately by the boards which will end in March. For almost five months children are expected to lock themselves up in their rooms, or in their tuition centres and cram. There is no personal agency, no purpose (except scoring high marks which is quite meaningless) and no scope for connection. No wonder we see so many young people with severe mental health problems during this period. Try talking to any of the boards like CBSE, ICSE and explain the sense of agency, purpose and connection to them and it might be like banging your head against their rusty walls.

Take any young person who is struggling with depression and you will find they have been stripped of agency, purpose and connection like Jahaan. And what turns things around for them is when they are able to connect to these vital ingredients for a meaningful life. This is true not just for young people, it is true for each one of us who are stuck in the narrow definition of success. We all need a sense of being in charge of our life, doing things that we see as worthwhile and make deep connections that bring us joy and belonging. Jahaan did something about it; what about you?

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