21 August 2016

Just keep swimming: on suicide and learning to accept failure

In my final year in high school, in a bid to pad out my extra curricular activities a bit, I volunteered to man a school crisis suicide helpline. We were all given cursory training, told what to say to ease the pressure on kids, told to hand over the phone to a professional if the person on the other end sounded like they were in danger, and then sent off. Part of the charm was that we worked at night, which meant my two friends and I actually stayed out all night watching the phones, something that had charm and novelty in those days. The phones didn't ring a lot though—we had about two or three calls each, no one in major crisis, usually just people looking to chat. I dispensed some advice on dealing with your parents and an irritating teacher, but most of the time, I read my book.

I was thinking of this helpline the other day when I read about a young law student Sushant Rohilla committing suicide because the college had threatened to debar him from the annual examinations and keep him back a year because of low attendance. It's a sad story, and one that could have been avoidable. The basic truth of the matter is that kids lack perspective. Something you or I as adults could brush off as “just one of those things” becomes an insurmountable tragedy. Is it the end of the world to not be able to sit your exams? No. But for Rohilla it clearly was.

Now the question is who is to blame. His college definitely deserves part of the blame—both for not being very clear about the rules as well as not recognising certain warning bells from his written communication to them. His home environment? Perhaps, because they may have raised him with all or nothing expectations. But mostly I think it's the society we live in. Indians cannot accept failure whether it's failure in a marriage (divorce), academics (failing a year), business (going bust) and so on and so forth. It's more taboo to fail in India than most other places globally, perhaps because we, as people, believe that it is “all or nothing.” Either you win or you lose. There is no in between. And while some people can handle this, many cannot. Life events which should be mere setbacks take on greater significance. Especially if you're a student and you think your whole future rests on this.

True story: I understand failure better than most. I failed Class 9, and even had to go back to the same school while the rest of my classmates moved on to Class 10 and a different wing of the school. I hated it, I hated the humiliation, having my juniors be my classmates, not seeing my friends anymore, the badge of “failure” that seemed at even just fourteen years old to be mine for life. But I managed to talk my parents into finding me a school (far, far away) and I went there and I reinvented myself and in many ways, that failure was actually the beginning of a long line of successes. If given a chance to time travel, I'd tell my fourteen year old self that it was going to get so much better, I'd tell that to all the kids looking at their lives now with distaste, wondering if all they'll ever be known as is “failures.”

We need to encourage and be more accepting of failure rather than reacting with shock and horror. If we had been practising this philosophy earlier, not only could we have saved this student and countless others like him, but we could also be working towards the vision of Future India, start-ups, new businesses and all. We can't have innovation without having a readiness to fail, and the sooner India realises this, the better.

(This appeared as my column on mydigitalfc.com)


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