When I was younger, in my student days, for example, there was this dichotomy in my head (and pretty much everyone’s head around me) of there being this difference between the almost make-believe world of academics and protective family you inhabit when you are still studying and the real world out there waiting for you. The real world was supposed to be, well, the real thing. Student days were nice in many ways. But not the real test of how capable you are, how successful, and how far you would go in life.
While tweeple were busy listing their achievements of the last decade (and some were busy criticizing the trend), I realized that my biggest learning in the last decade is that there is no ultimate “real world” out there and no absolute achievements and failures. All worlds are make-believe worlds. We are always a part of some system or the other. Our successes and failures are relative to that system. Whether we are capable or not depends on the system we are evaluating it in. And the systems are all created by humans. If we take the system seriously, we would call it the “real world”. If we don’t, we are waiting to enter another system we can take seriously and call the “real world”.
After student life those who chose to enter academia, the same academic world became their “real world”. Those entering corporates found their “real world” in that. After all, that’s where the real stuff happens and that’ where the world is run from, right? And then some decided that the corporate world has too much nonsensical work to be meaningful and tried to find their “real world” in startups. Some academics may have decided that too. Now, some may find that the startup ecosystem, that runs on funding rather than profits, is as much of a make-believe world as an inexplicable big, fat department in a 100-year old huge company where no one knows why they are there or the good, old make-believe world of academia. Some may find their “real world” in non-profits or in public service. The jaded and the cynical may still struggle!
Then it isn’t just one system that we are a part of. There are multiple. Sometimes there are systems and sub-systems. Sometimes they are overlapping. Your company is a system in itself. And there is a super-system above it that you may call the corporate world. People you associate with in your personal life form another system. The same action can be brilliant in one system and dumb in another. Fighting with your boss makes you an idiot in the system that is your company and the corporate world. You will not succeed there if you keep doing that. The same action can make you a hero among your anarchist friends, assuming you have those. To your extended family, you may be a big failure in life for not getting married, in a feminist group you would be a hero if you stuck to that because that’s what you wanted! The tendency to take charge may make you a great startup founder, but as a young employee in a company, you may be chastised for stepping on other people’s toes.
While occasionally there may be a genius who shines in a system despite not caring for it, in general, it is difficult to do well in a system that you do not take seriously. Because irrespective of what the system is, navigating it for success takes effort. Corporate shenanigans may look comical and meaningless from outside, but they take an understanding of the system and ability to do things that the system demand of you. It would be a lot of hard work. An obscene round of funding may make a startup skeptic shrug their shoulders, but those raising it have lost nights of sleep over it. Not possible if they didn’t believe in the system and didn’t attach huge importance to succeeding in it. The same belief in the system is needed if you appreciate other people’s success. If you don’t believe in the system of exams, an exam topper is nobody extraordinary to you. They just mugged things up (and it took a lot of hard work!). If you do believe in that system, they are God! Celebrities not repeating their clothes cater to a system that some of us would find superficial and extravagant, while others live for that. The world of paparazzi and entertainment magazines is “real world” or not, depending on whether you take that system seriously or not.
There is no real “real world” out there. There is only a make-believe world, a system, that you take seriously. And as someone making a statement like that, it would be obvious that I struggle to take any system too seriously. Not being able to take any system seriously means finding most of the things meaningless. I have found that taking a very high-level view of systems makes them look more ridiculous rather than less. So, to cope, I sometimes have to deliberately narrow my view down. When changing the world feels meaningless, I stick to doing my job well. If society demands things that make me miserable to keep them happy, I focus on keeping myself or those few people happy who understand and need better things. Since there isn’t a specific definition of success I care for in my career, I would be happy if there are at least a few people around who are happy to have worked with me.
To each their own make-believe real world!