On visibility

Is popularity — being seen and approved of by a majority, the sole indicator of success and the only way to be visible?

I have a fundamental discomfort with the spotlight. Over the years I have flip-flopped on it, understanding my responsibility to be visible so that others like me know that they are not alone. I have been afforded an incredible amount of privilege and with that, comes the same weight of debt to the world.

I used to attribute that to fear, that I hid from the spotlight because I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Imposter syndrome, they call it. I no longer feel like an imposter, because I now see that I cannot be an imposter for myself. We can only be imposters when we try to be someone we are not.

I now realize it is not fear of the spotlight, but being in it is a fundamental disconnect from everything I am and what I believe in. People tell me I should accept opportunities to put myself in the spotlight more because it will help others like myself to see themselves. I understand where they are coming from, and there was a point of time when I bought into that mindset.

But this is exactly what I do not want to advocate for. I do not want to advocate for a world where people have to grab any attention they can or chase popularity just to prove the merit of their work, or the value of their existence. Do amazing engineers have to work at top tech companies just to prove their capabilities? Do writers have to sell millions of books to be considered a great writer? Was Van Gogh a terrible painter because people only saw the worth of his paintings posthumously? Is popularity — being seen and approved of by a majority, the sole indicator of success and the only way to be visible?

I do not want a world that follows leaders because of carefully constructed narratives that inspire blind reverence. I want a world where people can critically seek answers for themselves, not form their worldview around what seems to be widely accepted or sought after.

I read a book, “Invisibles”. The book highlights several people who had made a conscious choice to remain behind the scenes. There was a structural engineer whose expertise made it possible for gravity-defying buildings to stand and be safe, the guitar technician who worked tirelessly for Radiohead, and the UN interpreter who could simultaneously listen and translate. Being invisible wasn’t just about running away from the spotlight, but it was a crucial aspect to the success of their work, their cherished identities, their devotion to the work and people they support.

Reading stories of them comforted me so deeply, like finding my tribe hidden in-between the lines of a book. It made me realize that these are the role models I seek — they have the qualities I want to espouse — not the typical solo heroes of conventional success narratives. I want others like myself to know that we can pursue self-determined excellence quietly, and still have a tremendously rich, rewarding life.

Perhaps in unconventional ways, I am consciously very visible, just not what people typically expect. I have been as honest, as open and as public as I can in my writing, on issues that most people do not want to be open about. I am not afraid of the spotlight when I see it as light I want to stand in, for they are dark corners that need light.

I want to work towards a world where people can be themselves, hence I need to be myself, and that means the visibility I owe to the world, has to come on my own terms.

I want to be visible for the human being I am, the values I stand for, the issues I care enough to speak about. I want people to connect to the person I am, the stories I tell, the conversations I am willing to engage in. I do not want to participate in a system that perpetuates the belief that you have to be somebody in order to be heard.

I have made deliberate effort to consciously avoid references to where I have worked, or people whom I know. It is there if you want to look for it, but it is not up front. I want you to know me for me, not by the virtue of my résumé, or the number of press clippings you can find on me.

Yes, it will take much, much longer for my people to find me, but if they manage to find me in obscurity, then they must be truly my people. It is like the joy of finding a book in a hidden corner of a bookstore. The book is discovered because people care enough to wander deep, and not just browse the ones at the store front. This is how I find them too.

Being obscure is just a different way of being visible, isn’t it?

I have consistently put out pieces of myself to the world, to let the world dissect me through the public access and permanence of my writing — I believe that to be more visible than any conventional means can give me.

It is a continuous struggle, and I admire people who are willing to endure being in the spotlight because they accept the responsibility that they are a conduit for a greater cause. I do not have such courage or strength, and I do not wish to be a hypocrite by pretending to have them.