A country with the heart of a child
I’ve raised a toddler so I know what they’re like. Exuberant little bombs of activity endowed with seemingly never-ending energy. Right up to the time they finish their dinner (reluctantly). It’s literally downhill from there. Boom, they’re asleep. As if the preceding 15 hours of noise and activity never happened.
I don’t intend to spend the rest of this post narrating a litany of my choicest cribs about toddlers. Far from it. I want to tell you how amazing they are. I also want to tell you how similar toddlers are to 300 million equally amazing people in a place called America.
Have you observed a toddler staring at anything? They don’t stare, they drink it in. Eyes wide open, senses on full alert, appraising a shiny new toy or that matte finish chair leg with equal wonder. It doesn’t end there. They can’t wait to see what it can do, so the experimentation begins. That little chubby hand moving with alarming alacrity and gripping the object of interest. The wondrous scrutiny, the turning around of the object in question. The brief look at a container of milk upended in the process of procuring the curiosty and back to perusal. Mesmerizing.
I’ve lived almost four years in America and have spent a lot of that time observing people around me. (Although I believe in the power of facts, I lend a higher credence to empiricism. It feeds instinct and intuition, which facts frequently don’t.) I saw a lot of curious people. Not the “ooh what’s that?” kind. The ones who have been brought up to smell opportunity in every little gap that life presents. A friend of the wife’s started her own “business”. Let’s just say it’s a scarf in the form of a toilet paper roll, which is apparently a big deal in the campus town she markets it in. The thing sells like hot-cakes.
Empirically, I’d say that woman would’ve been laughed out of any office in India, then her neighborhood. Then her parents, humiliated by the jibes would’ve gotten her married off to a well-settled software engineer with a green card and coaxed her to start having kids three days after the wedding.
Not in America.
There were approximately thirty thousand patents filed in India in 2010. There were half a MILLION patents filed in the US that year. Half of those patents were filed by non-residents. That’s Two hundred and fifty thousand patents filed by folks who do not call America their home. Many of them desis, like me. What the fuck happened?
I think it’s also got something to do with the freedom to ask questions, the way toddlers do sometimes. Seemingly stupid questions.
At work, I’ve seen numerous examples of folks with the courage to ask searching questions without a care for political quibbles or ask questions that might get them laughed at. My son learned at the age of three in America that it’s perfectly okay to ask a stupid question today than make a stupid mistake tomorrow because you didn’t ask. It’s a quality I’ve come to respect. Customer service specialists will ask dumb questions which I will dismiss with that peculiar Indian haughtiness of encountering someone more stupid than yourself. And yet, as I mull over the conversation I’ll realize that question saved me a few days in misunderstandings.
And it’s that inquisitiveness, so similar to a toddler’s inquiring and eager look, that drives America’s success. It powers the tenets of their innovation and it is the crux of how they manage to run their systems so smoothly. There should be no misunderstanding, you should always cater for the most stupid person in society – so go ahead and ask that stupid question.
Toddlers also get themselves into a lot of shit from time to time. Their eagerness to explore lands them in hot water which requires a lot of help to get out of. Like that matte-finish chair leg I referred to earlier. What if I were to stick my leg into that space between that chair leg and the table? What will happen? Will it transport me into a magical world with Dora, Boots and Backpack? Whoops, no…I can’t move anymore. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
Those home loan returns look amazing! What if I were to expand the scope and use thousands of economically unviable households to help power mortgage securities which I can sell globally? Whoops, I just broked the American economy. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
It was all happening when I moved to the US. 2008 was a year of glorious uncertainty. Americans were suffering thanks to their eagerness to own homes at sky -bottom interest rates. The mood was shit. Businesses were failing. When the economy’s good, people get laid. When it’s bad, they get laid off. And there was a lot of that going around. I followed with interest the efforts to resuscitate America. The stimulus packages, the government rhetoric on jobs. All of it seemed to be happening at thirty thousand feet. Then one day, a client casually remarked over lunch, “I wouldn’t worry. These guys will dust themselves off and work a little harder than they used to.” He was right. I saw it happen around me. Folks staying back half an hour more, responding to emails later in the day than they used to, spending a little more time working after hours to capture that lost glory. I even had the unique experience of hiring during this recession. It was brutal. Applicants were driven, eager and at times, desperate. It broke my heart. But in each person I saw pride and a semblance of hope. That they live in a country where eventually, something will work out. The faith that an edifice that crumbled due to avarice can still be propped up with hard work and inventiveness. America has been through nine big recessions since the Great Depression and it isn’t out of this one yet, but I see that constant struggle of a toddler trying to extricate himself from a tight spot, hollering for mom only when his efforts fail and it starts to hurt as the skin chaffs.
America hasn’t repeatedly pulled itself through this mire with hard work alone. They’ve done it with a sense of humor too. Have you ever laughed at your toddler doing silly things? They gurgle back. Of course, in their case it’s their reflex to mirror the parent’s emotion. If pops found it funny, it must be funny. It’s an instinct that helps them create social connections. I see those parallels in America. The country is not too stuck up to laugh at itself. That sense of humor keeps it going through the worst of times. And their humor is so self-deprecating, harmless and engaging. On a recent trip back from vacation, we loaded up on Duty Free and ambled into the cabin with a few extra bags. Our progress was slow and we were holding up the line. As I placed a bag full of liquor on the seat, the guy behind me looked at it with a bemused expression. He could’ve showed impatience or sighed or stared with disapproval. Instead, he smiled at me and said, “hey, I’d like to sit with you buddy”. It broke the tension, and we all laughed. Just like that, the trip was pleasant again.
Americans know they make mistakes. They may not always have the good grace to admit it, but they do so in their own way by laughing at themselves and moving on. Can’t tell you how much I love that.
Their currency isn’t guaranteed by gold or anything material for that matter. It’s guaranteed by its people. The average person in the US contributes thirty times the value of goods and services to the economy than the average Indian in India. It’s easy to gloss over the role of the people, residents and non-residents, who make this country what it is. Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans, Hispanics, Asians discovering the essence of what it means to be a child.
This is NOT an India bashing post. I’ve grown up and learned all my skills in India. They’ve been incredibly useful and have instilled great resourcefulness in me. This is also NOT a post which deliberately ignores America’s faults. Faults are not the point. I’m interested in what’s working.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t abandon the toddler in you. A country of millions achieved prosperity by not letting go of their childishness.