बड़े बड़ाई ना करें, बड़े ना बोले बोल।
रहिमन हीरा कब कहे, लाख टका मो मोल।।
Approx. translation: Great people do not praise themselves, they do not talk big about themselves. Who has ever heard the diamond claiming loudly that it is valued at lacs of rupees.
Modesty is one of the most valued traits of human character in Indian culture. The lines quoted above from the celebrated poet Rahim are something most Hindi speakers would have come across at some point of time or the other. There is a very famous Sanskrit shloka also, which I am currently unable to recall, which extols the virtue of modesty. I am pretty sure that most other Indian languages would have poems/sayings to similar effects. And its so much of a part of our upbringing.
I do not know if people from metros and bigger cities have had slightly different experience, but in the environment in which I grew up, you were not even supposed to accept complements by saying “Thank you”. If somebody complemented that you or your dress is looking good, you did not say “Thank you”. You said something to the effect “Oh! do not embarrass me”. If somebody complemented you for doing well in examination, you did not say “Thank you”. You said something to the effect “I was just lucky!”
You get the point, right?
Overall, you were not supposed to try to stand out, but were supposed to try and blend in. And no, this is not the kind of blending in that suppresses individuality. Somewhere the assumption behind all this was that if you are good, the world will recognize you. You don’t need to speak out for yourself. And in fact, you should not!
This principle suited most good people. It was just so much easier to keep doing your stuff well and the world will recognize you. And you know what! It worked. You just did your stuff. You did well in studies, you did well in extra-curriculars or even just one of them. You did not have to shout. The world recognized you.
And as you go to new places for studies, it would always be the same pattern. If you are not the shout-about-yourself type, people would not know you in the beginning. Not in the introduction/ragging period. But suddenly with the first exams, first opportunity for showing your talent, everybody spots you. They wonder where you were till then. And then they remember you. Not just for the rest of your stay there, but for many, many years after you have left.
It happens during student life.
If you have been an MBA student at some point of time, then there is a faint hint of things to come. Your marketing classes will tell you that making a better mousetrap is not good enough. You need to market it, sell it. But as a student, world will still recognize you, if you are good.
And then you enter the professional life. The story is different – totally. And not just for those who are in marketing. Even if you are in a role that will have nothing to do with the customer ever, you need to sell. You need to sell yourself to your boss, your colleagues, your company, even if not your company or its products to the customers. Otherwise, does not matter what you do or how good you are, you will be overlooked. The world will not discover you. It won’t even be enough to just shout our how much your real worth is. Because others will shout out an inflated worth for themselves and will get ahead. You have to shout out louder than the rest and you have to put a value higher than the others. You have to push yourself in front of everyone else; you have to reach on the top of the world by pushing every one down. Otherwise, the world will not recognize you. And don’t even bother with arguing for modesty anywhere. “You have to learn to project yourself in good light; become a professional.”, you well-wishing mentor will tell you.
If your are an entrepreneur, then there is even less scope for modesty. You, of course, have to sell yourself, you company and product to the customer. You have to sell it to everyone else too. To every potential employees, to potential vendors, (to investors), to the people you meet everyday, to your family. And you better appear confident even of the things you would rather accept you are not sure about. You better shout out loud about how great you and your company are. Else, you will not be heard. People do not have time or motivation or skills to assess your real worth. You have to shout it out well and shout it out for much more than your real worth. Because again, you are competing with those who are inflating the values they are shouting out.
What do you do with the baggage of your modesty, which asks you to just shut up and do your job and let the world discover you? It fails you.
Its not that Indian culture and its expectations are inherently impractical. The same culture said long back “सत्यम् ब्रूयात् प्रियम् ब्रूयात्। न ब्रूयात् सत्यम् अप्रियम्।।” “Don’t speak the truth, if its unpleasant”. How much more practical can you get! But, whey the hell did not one creating the foundation stones of this culture could see that world does not always discover what is good. You have to shout out your value some times. What went amiss? If modesty works only in certain circumstances, they should have taught us to have it only in certain circumstances. Somehow that does not happen.
If there is one thing about my upbringing which I find limits me and which I also find is impossible to leave behind, it is this lesson in modesty. I have learned to respond to complements with a “thank you” over time. But thats a mechanical learning. Shouting out is still an issue and it hurts!
What do you think? Is there a place for the modesty our culture teaches us in our professional lives? One thing I would like to give reference to is Nadeem’s post here on his experience of trying to find an alternative career in corporate world. Specifically
However, I must confess that the new rules are not easy to play by. Self praise is frowned upon in the Services and I still blush when I have to assure the HR recruiter that I am good.