Day 4: Nobodies and Somebodies

If you go to middle school, high school, or even college in the U.S. and want to be “cool,” then remember the following trick (and thank me later): if anyone ever asks you “if you studied” for the exam, then always say NO. Depending on what kind of vibe you want to give off, though, there are different ways to phrase and intonate your NO:

OMG, I didn’t study at all…I’m totally going to fail — This is perfect for when you actually did study, but you’re not feeling too confident about how you’ll do. It’s like math exams for non-math people, who, no matter how much they study, are always slightly worried about the outcome. The great part about this answer is that if you actually did poorly, then it’s because you didn’t study, but if you did well, it’s because you’re naturally smart — a win-win.

I didn’t even study…I was out with friends all night — this one is best done with a shoulder shrug. Its when you’re confident that you’re going to do well, and you can pass off your lack of studying for natural, raw intelligence. The going out with friends part is thrown in to make it seem like you’ve got it all figured out.

Pff…I..diiidn’t..eeeeven..stuuuudy..all words are italicized and elongated, because each word is said with more sass than the previous one. This versatile NO can work whether you studied or not, as if you do poorly, you can pass it off as not even caring. But if you do well, you can indirectly show everyone what a natural genius you are, all the while pretending to be too cool to even care about how smart you are. This is great if you want to show off how independent and rebellious you are.

Everyone knows these stories, or at least knows the sentiment behind them, which is a fear of failure. True, we are frequently reminded of people who failed many times before succeeding: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba) was rejected from Harvard 10 times; Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple before rejoining. Almost every graduation speech is a story of failure by some traditonally highly successful person.

My views on failure changed, though, one day while talking about the importance of failure to my friend Abodh, citing stories like those above, when he asked, “true, but what about the people who failed…and then didn’t succeed? It’s easy to just mention a lot of people who became successful after failing, but it’s equally important to know how many people tried really hard and then failed.”

Ever since that conversation, I hear these graduation speeches differently; giving a speech on the importance of failure for success when success itself is defined as being better than others means that the majority of us are, by definition, bound to be failures. Michael Jordan is only Michael Jordan because…no one else is Michael Jordan. In fact, precisely in order for there to be a Michael Jordan, everyone else must fail in becoming Michael Jordan. I’m only a good student because other people are bad students — failures, according to the system we’ve created.

A friend once said to me that “you’re nobody until you’re somebody.” I don’t know if he believed it or if it was an indictment of our society’s hero worship and our schools that either brand children as successful or as failures. But, we, as a society, are basically producing two kinds of bodies — nobodies and somebodies. Somebodies get to fail and talk about it, because they succeeded in the competitions that we created.

A student in rural Bihar, forced into the race to become a “somebody.” (Photo by Elena Gutierrez).

But what about “nobodies?” Where do we get to tell stories about our own journeys of failure? We don’t — because failure is only deemed important so long as it leads to some socially validated success, like an award or becoming world class in something.

In addition, because the nobody-somebody distinction is so stark — and which is continually fueled precisely by the fact that we continue to call in successful people to talk about their lives and failures — the social costs of failure actually go up significantly. Why? Because in a system with so few somebodies, most people, by definition, will not become a somebody. Most people figure out the low probability, and yet, they still want to try. Yet, if they try and fail, then they’ll look stupid — as if lacking in natural intelligence.

Which is why it makes sense to always say NO when people ask you if you studied. You must study (i.e., work hard) silently and not get caught; you must study on your own and not work with others (which would require acknowledging that you study); and you must pretend to be apathetic, no matter how much you care about whatever it is that you’re working on. It’s in a society with only nobodies or somebodies that life ceases to be a constant journey of learning, and instead, turns into a silent battle royale between would-be friends.

But what if we just allowed everybody to be a somebody from the start? Would the idea of nobodies cease to exist? Would the concept of failure become redundant? Would we simply see everything that happens as part of the same continuum of living and learning? How would these changes affect human relationships? How would this change in thinking change how resources are distributed? These are some of the questions we want to explore in the university, where we believe that everybody, everywhere, is a somebody from day one.

Like what you read? Give Zubin Sharma a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.