Use These Masks with Discretion!

“Will you be giving us a certificate for the Stress Management program?” I was perplexed by this question from several participants, more so when it was to be a two-hour online session. To one of them, a lecturer, I asked “Why are you so keen on having a certificate? Do you think it will help you manage your stress?” She replied, “It looks good on my CV.”

I have been attending the 10-day Vipassana and Satipatthana courses since 1986 and till date neither the participants have asked for, nor has the Vipassana International Academy felt like giving away the certificates; the Vipassana program had a greater impact on my life than my formal education, that too without any certification. Mark Twain said, “I did not prevent my school from getting me educated.”

The conventional masks, the N95 and its variants are used as a prevention against COVID-19… and then there are credential masks comprising of academic credentials and professional achievements.

Credentials, certifications etc. have their validity and relevance to set benchmarks, SOPs, etc. and need to be adhered to while selecting a candidate or a vendor. Essential in professional life, they may indicate a person’s potential, not necessarily his accomplishments. There is a problem with too much emphasis on credentials.

There are two types of errors people tend to make either about themselves or of others.

With a degree or certification from the right type of institute, one feels competent. People also tend to judge others’competence with the same type of masks. The media also adds to the credential mask hype by taking out the rating surveys. I wonder whether it is for the potential customers (the students) or for the vendors (the institutes). It may be for both.

Quite often we tend to equate a person with the credential mask one wears and it may lead to errors like the examples below:  

  1. Vinod Mehta was one of India’s most influential editors with publications like The Sunday Observer, The Indian Post and Outlook. He barely scraped through with a third-class degree in B.A. He said while recruiting a copy editor, “I always make it a point not to recruit a copy editor based on his/her marks in English literature as I myself did not score good marks in English at any level.”

The problem with the masks is that after some time we fall in love with the masks which are our credentials, be it the degree, the CTC, the designation or our possessions. It starts in childhood with marks and without awareness the ‘r’ in marks gets transformed into an ‘s,’ other alphabets remaining the same. As Nirad Chaudhary says, “Marks are a stark reminder of India’s slavish colonial past and a pointer to being an academically third-class country.” (Nirad C Chaudhary – Thy Hand Great Anarch, 1987)

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis – The father of Indian Statistics told Pandit Nehru that if the marks based evaluation on the legacy of Macaulay system were not to be scrapped, India would degenerate into a world of toppers sans any skills to survive in a competitive world.

Credentials are certainly important in professional life but what happens if they are applied at a personal level too? Shweta, 28, with an MBA Finance working in a bank is looking for an alliance. As her CTC is Rs. 12 lakhs, her expectation is that of a groom, (apart from a PG degree) with a minimum CTC of Rs. 15 lakhs. Now if a candidate is switching from a job of Rs. 12 lakhs to Rs. 15 lakhs that is fine, but can the same yardstick be applied to one’s personal life? What happens if the husband were to lose his job after marriage or if he were to start his business with uncertain income for the first few years?

Imagine a scenario where the guy, a Software Engineer from a MNC gets engaged to a lady, a Program Manager working in a local company. Based on his higher CTC, he tells his fiancée: “Based on your performance you will be promoted to the position of a wife in six months,” to which she responds: “Your people skills are under review. Post-marriage you shall undergo training for 2 years and based on your performance, your eligibility for fatherhood shall be considered.”

Can a conventional yardstick of evaluating a person on his credentials lead to an error in judgement? Rahul Sankritayan, considered as the Father of Indian Travelogue literature, was never considered fit to teach at any Indian University as he did not even finish matriculation. The University of Leningrad appointed him as a Professor of Indology and neighbouring Sri Lanka appointed him as a Professor Emeritus at Colombo University and permanent head of faculty of Buddhism Studies and Pali. It was Nehru who intervened and bent the rules for this polyglot and polymath genius.

Quite often our perceptions create our reality. Having attended a week-long program at Harvard or IIM, some executives put that in prominence on their LinkedIn profile creating a perception of a full-time program. (After all marketing, advertising and branding are nothing but creating perceptions and illusions!) As long as we are aware that it is the requirement of a role and that prevarication of the truth is the same as a lie – that is fine.

When you go for a job interview or a sales call meeting with your client, you need to be well dressed, focus on your strength, and say the best things about yourself, the company and your product range. Sometime during job interview when you are asked about your weaknesses, executives project them in such a way that they are perceived as strengths. Some candidates tell me, “One of my weaknesses is that I work too hard and am not able to devote time to my family,” or “I am a taskmaster focussed on numbers all the time and not being able to focus on my hobbies.” The irony is you can see the real person beneath such masks.

But can these masks really help us when we go through tough times or an existential crisis? A well-dressed successful CEO once visited a Zen master to address his personal anguish and frustration. He started his corporate jargon focussing on his strengths. The Zen Master asked him whether he is ready for a cup of tea. As the Zen master was pouring tea in the cup, the CEO went on sharing his success stories ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The Zen master went on urging him to talk more. The CEO being in his element, never realized that the cup was full, still the master continued pouring; and tea overflowing in the saucer. The CEO could take it no longer when he saw tea dripping on the ground. Unable to control his irritation, the CEO said, “Master, this is terrible. If you cannot pour tea into the cup properly, how can you solve my problems?” The master replied, “You are like this overflowing cup with your achievements and miseries. Unless you empty your cup and let go of your mask, there is no possibility of a profound change.”

A N95 or Credential mask is essential when we are away from home and interacting with strangers, customers, vendors or colleagues. It is easier to take off a regular mask when we are back home. With Work from Home (WFH) becoming the new normal, several executives find it difficult to let go of the credential mask in a personal capacity. An emotionally intelligent person is the one who takes his work seriously but not himself.

So just let go off the baggage, the credential mask… neatly summed up by this poem.

Guy In the Glass

When you get what you want and you struggle for pelf

and the world makes you king for a day,

then go to the mirror and look at yourself

and see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your mother, your father or wife

whose judgment upon you must pass,

but the man, whose verdict counts most in your life

is the one staring back from the glass

He’s the fellow to be pleased

never mind all the rest.

For he’s with you right to the end,

and you’ve passed your most difficult test

if the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,

and think you’re a wonderful guy,

but the guy in the glass says you’re only a bum

if you can’t look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world,

down the highway of years,

and take pats on the back as you pass.

But your final reward will be heartache and tears

if you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

– Anonymous

Never judge a book by its cover or a person by his mask!

2 thoughts on “Use These Masks with Discretion!

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