To Janak’s credit, he was intrigued more than irritated by the cheeky question, and responded with a challenge, “If you can make a full round of my palace with a bowl of oil without spilling a drop, I will answer you in detail.”
“How can I notice any of those things,” he expostulated, “my eyes were glued to the darn bowl lest the oil should spill!”
“Yes,” said Janak, “you had a mission to fulfill, and all else fell beyond the margin.”
He went on to explain that the mission of being a good king so absorbed his attention that everything else became peripheral.
I find the story unforgettable, for, like the youth, I tiptoe cautiously around the palace of my life, wondering what is my mission.
Most of us are defined by the work we do. The first thing we want to know about people we meet is what they do. Once we know a person is a lawyer or doctor, we put him or her in a slot that determine the person’s status with us. No matter that a lawyer can be a variety of things, from a criminal litigator to a corporate advisor to a university researcher, good or bad. A doctor can be a veteran emergency physician or a newbie consultant to insurance companies. We simply ascribe a value to the person based on our earlier notion of doctors and lawyers.
For years I was a corporate executive. My work changed greatly over the years, especially as I changed departments and locations and took on new projects that interested me. That made not the slightest difference to how people treated me. They just regarded me as an executive stereotype, who wears a suit and tie to his club even in summer, drinks whisky sour in the evening and plays golf. They would have been shocked to learn that I did none of those things, read Hegel and Shakespeare for fun and my abiding interest was relationship pathologies among my colleagues.
Later, when I moved to a UN organization, overnight my billing changed to that of international development specialist. I worked on different types of development projects to be sure, but my real interest continued to be relationship issues between expatriate consultants and local specialists – which wasn’t really all that different from what had fascinated me earlier. That did not matter. People branded me as a development guy and that is what determined my branding.
Then I joined the diplomatic corps. Once again there were differences and handled problems that looked and sounded very different. But, in its essence, I often found myself mediating relationship issues between the country I represented and the host country – or perhaps some other country or combination of countries. More than others, I found I took a more deliberate and academic approach to what I had to handle – I read more and analyzed documents much more – but my image in most eyes was that of a cocktail guzzling diplomat. Whatever the word, or its associations, meant in the mind of my interlocutors.
The strange part was that though I was the same person, often pursuing very similar interests in a slightly different but rather analogous way, my identity was vastly different in the eyes of the people I met and dealt with. This is strange, for a moment’s thought would tell us that each of us is an amalgam of many different identities. I am at any moment, a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a neighbor, a rival in chess or tennis, a cook in the kitchen, a guitar player in a band, a cricketer in a university team and, on a congenial evening, even a bar tender. I do very different things in these diverse roles, I do them with hugely different competence, and I enjoy very different satisfaction in doing them.
Like almost anybody else, I live a complex life, playing different roles at different places at different times. When people brand me, by quickly stereotyping me with single word, like executive or diplomat, they don’t really grasp my life, my goals or my values. They just bury it all under the rubric of a notion that totally misrepresents me.
What is even more dangerous is that I myself have been sometimes tempted to think of myself simply as an executive or a diplomat and forget what a complex bundle I really am. Those are the times I have tried to think of King Janak and his parable of the oil-filled bowl. And ask myself: What is really my mission?
I wish I had a simple answer.