Kung fu pandas and other disciples among us


It’s a golden age for self-improvement. There are many ways people can become better people. In fact, to call this pursuit “self-help” is like calling a doctor “physician”. It may be correct but too vague. Rather, it is called “entrepreneurship”, “mindfulness”, “the fine arts”, “philosophy”, “spirituality”, “creative writing” and many other things of the same kind. I am thrilled, because so many people will become better people very soon, and then they will take another course to become even better. From what I saw around me, usual and perennial mentees are of seven types.

The Kung Fu Pandas: In the animated film Kung Fu Panda, a clumsy panda with low self-esteem enjoys kung fu and wants to become good at it. He is not satisfied with the masters at his disposal and leads a life of regret. But then a series of accidents lead him to a worthy kung fu master far from home, an ancient turtle.

I know Kung Fu Pandas. They are passionate about an art form and they want to learn. They are looking for a mentor, but are disappointed with the gurus available to them who are close to home or their own cultural type. Their low self-esteem makes them feel that what is available to them or what is intended for them must be of no value. They invariably find their master in a racially different person. The Indian panda, for example, would find its master in a wise Caucasian turtle.

The Kung Fu Pandas are driven by a curse. They are of average talent in the art which they love so much. Not so bad that they don’t need to care, but not so good that they can be great. So they need the social networks of helpful people. Thus, they are friendly and respectful, and since they are not overly talented, they are not threatening, which leads to their initial success which they mistakenly attribute to their racially different master.

Devotees of the Spirit: A few years ago I went to meet an Israeli by the name of Lior Suchard who said he was “a reader of thoughts”. He is among those who have said that humans “only use 1% of their brain”. By this they mean unlike most people, they use their brain a lot more, this is how they fold spoons and tell you the name of your first girlfriend. Many people do not wish to consider this magic; they want to believe in the mystical nature of the mind, the reason Suchard makes a good living. A workshop he organized in Gurgaon to educate business leaders on how to use the “full potential” of their minds brought together dozens of executives whose giant companies paid. ??16,000 per mind for it.

The mind should be the most common subject of self-improvement. The typical devotee of the spirit is a person who thinks he is “scientific,” which means that he will believe anything a person with impressive scientific credentials says pleasantly, including nonsense. Therefore, if you have a “neuro” in your past or present job description, you can say a lot of abstract things about the mind, meditation, and inner peace.

But the point is, the mind is the least understood part of an animal. What we know about the mind today is almost the same as what people knew a thousand years ago, except for the general acceptance today that the mind is not the heart.

The Sports Analogy Consumer: A parable is an absurd form of history. In a parable, an unlikely event occurs – like, for example, a hare and a turtle agree to have a race. And by using this unlikely event, the parable conveys an improbable moral. (Yet parables sell for more than my books.) The modern parable improves upon the old form. In the modern parable, an actual event is used by a mentor to tell you what you can do to be successful. Sporting events are a particular favorite. For example, a guy will host a company workshop on “Roger Federer’s Endurance Lessons”. Or, if a mediocre, boring football team wins a major tournament, there will be seminars on why teamwork is more important than individual genius.

There are hundreds of thousands of analogy consumers who are ready to see moral and practical messages in sport that can somehow transform their lives. Naturally, to meet the high demand for this, the suppliers of Sports Analogy have hired some of the greatest athletes who speak tangentially about how others can apply their athletic manners. For example, Steve Waugh and Saurav Ganguly would be hired from time to time to talk about “leadership”.

Other major self-improvement subscribers are The Tradition Miners, who worship any principle as long as it is very old. For example, everything that Chanakya said in the Arthashastra. Or an Inuit sighting. But generally, morality must be not only ancient, but also drawn from the scriptures of the advanced caste or the dominant race that won the culture wars.

And, there are the autobiography researchers. I don’t mean to say that they are looking for the autobiographies of legends, it’s a very different market. Instead, autobiography seekers are egotistical people who think they are looking to improve themselves, but in reality are looking for stories that remind them of themselves. And, there are the masochists, who are wired to highly rate a difficult method and be wary of easy, painless, and enjoyable methods.

And, there is also The Secret Disciples, like the columnists who seem to mock people who wish to be better, but are getting better themselves. Maybe they think if they are hiding something, it must be very important.

Manu Joseph is journalist and novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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