When you need a reality check, who you gonna call? And please don’t say, “Ghostbusters”. It is tough being a young urban Indian these days. Unlike generations past, today we all have to learn how to market ourselves. Humility—that prized Indian virtue—carries little weight when you are trying to get a job or win a contract. Now, I happen to think humility is very sexy and self-effacing humour, charming. But in this era of Powerpoint presentations and hiring PR companies to tell the world how great you are, image and the selling of it have become paramount.
I, too, do it every day. A large part of my job involves convincing, sometimes conning, my editors and readers into believing that I know what I am talking about. It happens in small ways, all of which are detailed in multiple business school texts. Highlight the positives; offer creative alternatives. Things like that. I didn’t pick them up in business school. I picked them up in, of all places, art school. I majored in sculpture in college. I was trained to build giant metal sculptures and installations. That was the easy part. Selling my work to galleries was much harder. As my sculpture professor said, I had to learn to “hustle”.
The problem with marketing yourself for years is that there comes a point when you actually believe your own PR, when you actually think you are as much of a hotshot as you’ve made yourself out to be. That is when you need what I call ‘bullshit detectors’. You need a reality check against the bloated ego that comes from buying into your own sales pitch.
Friends, especially old friends, the kind who knew you when you were a pimply kid with no prospects are godsent, just to keep the aggrandizing self in check. Friends who will call you names or call your bluff—“what kind of a cop-out is that?”—when you spout some nonsensical theory are invaluable.
Children are great balancers. “Darling, Mummy won the Padma Bhushan for de-worming orphans in Somalia.”
“I NEED to go potty.”
Spouses are tricky. Most of us are extremely sensitive to what our spouses say. We detect censure at the merest hint of what is actually meant to be a joke. “Oh, this party is filled with your buddies?” “What do you mean, my buddies?” And then out comes the kitchen sink and the baby in the bathwater. A right royal fight ensues, guns blazing, with past slights remembered and rehashed. The wounded warriors stumble out the next morning, vowing never to “offer feedback” again. Spouses, in other words, are great reality checks to the extent that we allow them to be.
Best of all is to find someone whose views you value in a relationship that is not so emotionally loaded. My brother plays this role for me. His opinion means the world to me. Yet, at the same time, I can shrug off his criticism with ease probably because I was used to it all through growing up. Now we are neighbours in Bangalore, so the comments and corrections continue. When I am waxing eloquent at parties, Shyam smirks. When I show him my book, he says, “Great doorstop.” My brother rarely reads this column and I prefer it that way. He is consumed with Peakalpha, the company he founded, and offers brotherly suggestions when I ask for them. Such as the following….
Before the launch of this column, the newspaper sent a photographer to take mugshots of me that would accompany the byline. The shoot was great fun. Posing for a clicking camera is a great ego trip, especially if the photographer is talented enough to make you appear better looking than you actually are. Finally, I received three shots of myself that made the short-list. The quality of the prints was great, and I actually thought I looked pretty good. Buffed and boosted by my own vanity, I emailed the pictures to my brother and asked for his choice of the one that would accompany this column. His email reply was, “Picture 1 is very nice, 8/10 (because most of the picture is dark and one can see very little of you). Picture 2 is not too bad, but you look worried, 6/10. In picture 3 you look like a beku, 2/10 (by the way, this one is the most authentic!)”
The one you are seeing above is Picture 1, by the way. And beku is the Tamil equivalent of a moron, but carries a helluva lot more punch.
My Dad, on the other hand, will read my pieces and send a list of corrections—both grammatical and on the usage of the English language. “On the whole, good,” he will start before getting to the “but sentence 4 is a tautology and the split infinitive usage in sentence 9 is all wrong.”
I am lucky, I guess. With family like this, who needs a reality check? I only need to open emails from my brother or father. They are stored in a special folder that I call “BS Balancers”.
Shoba Narayan will not seek her brother’s or father’s opinion on this particular column. Please do her the favour of not forwarding it to them. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org