Café Coffee Day founder #VGSiddhartha death revealed the debt crisis in India. It also revealed an empathy crisis of the world we live in.
When a self-made, socially-committed entrepreneur commits suicide, we are left with an unexplainable void. In my last blog (Death of an Entrepreneur: Our collective Blindspot), I explored how we all are becoming the part of the invisible forces, within our social ecosystem, that makes and breaks an entrepreneur.
I received many responses from other entrepreneurs, bankers, tax officers, psychologists and artist. They resonated with the blog and shared how they feel stuck and helpless in the ecosystem that accounts for the death of talented and conscious entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Some of the readers knew Siddharth personally. They shared stories of his commitment to uplift underprivileged communities, educating youth and his diligence to pay off all his debts. Yet, he ended up seeing himself a failure and killed himself.
Interestingly, some readers saw it differently. They hold Siddharth as a defaulter who took the system for granted and killed himself when questioned. They wonder how can one have empathy for those who default the system and fail their dependents. This contrast in viewpoints made me wonder why do we fail to see and feel the ecosystem that we are part of. How do we get obsessed with the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, while, the script and the scriptwriters go unnoticed?
Perhaps, how we see the world depends upon what lenses we wear. Do we tend to look narrowly at immediate parts or we look at the whole? Do we look mechanically at structural/ logical elements and externalise responsibility? Or we also look empathically at emotional/cultural dimension and take collective ownership of what happened?
This made me draw a matrix to map all response. There seem to be four distinct viewpoints:
Narrow mechanistic view (Fault-finding): Holding the entrepreneur accountable for his or her wrong decisions and lack of responsibility. From this viewpoint death of entrepreneurs like Siddharth is a result of their own mistakes and failure. They misuse the system and fail to deal with when questioned. This is similar to the patriarchal, alpha male paradigm that blames the entrepreneurs (the masculine provider) for defaulting the system and shames him for making his family or tribe suffer.
Systems mechanistic view (System-analysis): Holding the system accountable that’s victimising the entrepreneur. This viewpoint shifts attention from the individual to the whole system and analyses the structural and policy dimensions. Many business leaders and politicians have been speaking from this viewpoint, when they refer to tax-terrorism and insensitive policies by the current government.
Both the above viewpoints on left side of the matrix, are logical and persuasive. But they lack empathy. They look at the issue and try to quickly fix it by holding either the entrepreneur or the system accountable. They don’t put themselves in the situation. To understand the right side of the matrix, we need to step into shoes of the entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Something we were able to do when we created a Social Presencing Theatre based systems map (refer last blog)
Narrow empathetic view (Mental-wellbeing): Reflecting on the mental and emotional stress an entrepreneur undergoes that makes him take such drastic step. Those holding this viewpoint empathise with Siddharth and call upon other entrepreneurs to take care of their mental well-being. They advocate that entrepreneurs must have close friends and professional support to help them through these situations.
Holistic empathic view (Co-sensing and transforming the ecosystem): Reflecting not only on the emotional struggles of the entrepreneur but the larger field that co-creating the suffering. Those holding this perspective are like gardeners who go beyond sympathising with the dying plant and attend to the whole ecosystem. They feel the collective pain and reflect on their own role in co-creating the mess.
The holistic empathic view reminds of something my teacher and systems thinking guru Peter Senge told me ten years back.
“You cannot change a system unless you see your thumbprint (role) in creating it”.
This quote changed my perspective in life. Unless we see how we are creating the current state of suffering, we will only remain helpless victims of the same. And victims have no power to change the system anyways. From a holistic systemic viewpoint, we all are interconnected. We can see how we are co-creators of the capitalist economy that creates, exploits and kills entrepreneurs like Siddharth.
As investors, we are only invested in higher returns on the capital we invest in. We create pressure on enterprises to take the risk and return higher dividends. We don’t care anything about sustainable practices of the enterprise or well-being of the entrepreneur. Together with banking system, we have co-created a short-term, individualistic growth culture cares little for people or planet.
As the government, we want to control and claim higher taxes. We citizen elect governments and become part of the impersonal machinery that puts undue pressure on entrepreneurs. I recall how voters celebrated the demonetisation and GST policies while so many small scale entrepreneurs struggled to survive. It was painful to see an entrepreneur friend of mine breaking down financially and emotionally during that period.
As employees of these enterprises and banks, we want job stability, salary raise and secure lifestyle. We don’t know the risks and burden an entrepreneur takes to feed his enterprise. As family and friends, we often want the status quo of lifestyle to continue. Praising the patriarch and never letting him off the hook. As a community, we shame and blame if they fail their role as providers. Makes it difficult for entrepreneurs like Siddharth to retreat, surrender or restart.
As a society, media and consumers, we have co-created a narrative of “grandiosity and shame”. We feed on rag-to-riches, alpha, hero stories. We inspire our youth to think big, dream big, and leap beyond their own bearings. We have created systems that seduce them do so through low-risk loans, venture capital and so on.
We first feed them to the “grandiose” narrative. A few may succeed, temporarily. Sooner or later they fail. Then we trigger the “shame” narrative. Shaming them for failing the system, the family, the community, their own image. Some sneak away unceremoniously out of the limelight. Some bear it all and commit suicide.
Something in this story reminds me of the 2017 biopic “The Mercy“. It is a real-life story of a businessman, Donald Crowhurst, from the United Kingdom. He had a beautiful family and a decent lifestyle inspite of his struggling business. He got seduced by the grandiosity narrative and, in spite of being an amateur sailor, he applied for the Golden Globe Race to sail solo around the world without any stop. Media made him an instant hero. Investors put their money to help him build a new boat. Rest of us projected our unlived hero dream on his frail shoulders. A few weeks before his journey he realised that he has bitten more than he could chew. As a technologist, he was certain that his new boat would fail. Yet the media refused to listen, investors got hold of his house mortgage, everyone put pressure on him, and he, himself, could not fail his family. And so he went on the expedition. Though he sailed half way around the world, impressive for an amateur, he could not return as a failure and face the shame. He jumped in the sea and committed suicide. When the news of his suicide reached his wife and children, media surrounded their house, hurling insults and demeaning him. At one point his wife opened the door and said
“I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell, or if he jumped… as you’re now saying. But I would like you to rest assured, that if he did jump, he was pushed. And each and every one of you here had a grubby hand on his back. Every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a newsstand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement.
Last week you were selling hope, now you’re selling blame. Next week you’ll be selling something else.
But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father. And I will still need my husband.”
Gratitude & Dedication:
I was inspired to write Part 2 of this blog by Shamnad Basheer. A spirited soul, a legal academician, social entrepreneur and innovator. I had met him and fourteen other inspiring legal professionals at a gathering in Kerela organised by Agami last month (some of work is reflect in Part 1 of this blog). 3 weeks back, Shamnad was travelling in the region where V.G.Siddhartha came from and shared inspiring stories encouraging me and others to “step beyond atomistic thinking and reconnect with the whole we are part of”. Unfortunately, Shamnad died in an accident on way back from Chikamangaluru on 8th Aug 2019. In a short span of few weeks, he inspired me to keep activating the ecosystem of goodness. Unfortunately, he is not here to read this piece.