In Search of Wisdom: Duty versus Achievement

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“The paths of glory at least lead to the grave, but the paths of duty may not get you any where.” – American humorist James Thurber

Duty, duty, duty! I have so many memories of hearing my father rendering lectures on duty to my brothers, who in turn lectured me. “Did you do your work?” “Why were you aggressive?” “Did you do your prayers?” I can recall many such examples of defined and implied duties and their executions and mis-executions. And the same reality manifests in more sophisticated forms in my journey of life from Madi, Modi, Dordi, Daraundi, Bagmati, Ganga to Ottawa. But never had it occurred to me to look inside this world of duty until recently.

Just last month, a project required some competent and experienced people for its execution. I was, therefore, looking for the best matches from a stack of resumes where each person had a substantial amount of industry experience padded with degrees like Masters and Ph.D. In the end, however, there was not one resume that really inspired me. Each wrote what duties they had performed and listed in length all the networking protocols, operating systems, and computer languages they had exposure on, be it intimate or remote. I could not, however, figure out on which item they carried exceptional knowledge and experience. In essence, I figured out what duties they had performed without really knowing what their achievements were. While looking for an achiever, I was finding the obedient.

The very same day an aspiring young person from Nepal wrote to me in relation to a project and said, “Sir, could you please specify what my job description is?” This came from a person whom I consider a bright star and a leader in the making. While I promised to provide him with such information, I felt a sense of guilt for many others that have written to me over time seeking to do anything for Nepal if I could tell them what to do and how to do it. My replies have been that I will inform them when such time comes. And there were days when I actually believed that I will someday be able to mobilize all those benevolent people. With the passage of time, however, I started realizing the enormity in investigating the capabilities and assigning appropriate duties to so many people, and thereon monitoring their performances.

This led me to inspect the pathways of my own failures and successes. Surprisingly enough, I could not recall being driven primarily by duties whereas I could recall many incidences where my father was outlining duties for my brothers. I was spared, owing to my young age and my father’s old age. I remember my father as a respected farmer in his seventies to whom many people came for advice. And on a fateful morning, he fell from the roof of our house to the stone patio, then slid to the next terrace underneath it, and finally stopped at the terrace below that. He was trying to fix our leaky roof that was not handling the torrential rain of that particular monsoon. I remember how he was carried inside where he rested in pain for months before he improved marginally. He never really did well after that. Compounded by the deterioration of his lungs, due to asthma and smoke, he was bed ridden for his last few years. He must have realized that his days were numbered. He handed his management responsibilities to my oldest living brother, and switched his gear from assigning duties and evaluating performance to talking about achievements, gone were the days of duty sermons. In numerous occasions he said to me, “Be a great person.” “Make great friends.” “Be learned.” and “Be happy.” These were totally open ended wishes and I had no clue on what they truly meant and how was I supposed to achieve them. The only unmistakable sounding assignment he gave to me was on the day I left home. He said, “Be a doctor!” He gave slight hints on some untimely deaths seen by our family, how his health was suffering, and how I could bring home some positive changes. He gave an example of a distant cousin, a Professor of Ayurvedic Medicine, from Gulmi.

I came to Kathmandu and applied for a 3 year certificate program in General Medicine to be true to my father’s wishes but I met with failures. I could not secure the admission and had to settle for a general science program in Physics, which subsequently made me an engineer. A decade after my father had set a measure of achievement for me, my M.Sc. program supervisor asked me if I wanted to enroll in a Ph.D. program. I had no problem recalling my memories and being inspired to accept the offer. Upon earning the doctoral degree, I had a sense that I had achieved at least a bit of what my father had wished for me. The rest of the goals were set so vaguely that it would be virtually impossible for me to achieve. Nevertheless, they bear some inspirational value for me. On the other hand, my better mannered brother of incredible talent got stuck in the village of Sarkuwa bound by his duties to manage the family. He is a principal of a school there although he carries an intellectual capacity to manage an entire ministry of our country.

When I look into these scenarios, the word duty sounds to me like a sacrifice that we are required to make. The most talked about definition of duty may be found in Bhagabat Gita where it is described as either vocationally or virtuously prescribed assignments to a person that have to be acted upon by that individual. Just think of our duty to look after our parents, children, community school, and temple, or simply that of watering the garden plants. Gita goes further in saying that our duty is to act on our responsibilities. Therefore, action is the way and inaction is not the answer. “Man does not attain freedom from action without entering upon action, nor does he attain perfection by the renunciation of action.” Further, intensity of action and alignment of actions to the broader goal (dharma) are taken as measures of success rather than the immediate results of an action.

Duty to me appears as my responsibility towards others and is centered on others. Further, my duty is either explicitly or implicitly defined from the outside, largely based on others’ perspectives on me. May be that is the reason Bertrand Russel once said, “A sense of duty is useful in work, but offensive in personal relations.” A duty-bound journey usually leads me to do enough to fulfill others’ expectations on me. I would likely be managed and evaluated by someone else due to the inherent nature of duty.

On the contrary, my achievements are mostly driven by my self-awareness and are largely self-driven and self-managed. An achievement-centered journeys would make me more committed to pursue causes feeding solely on my inner will. Every time I reach a goal, I can set even higher aspiration for myself, expand the sphere of my consciousness, and realize higher level of self-development if I am driven by achievements. In that sense achievement is a higher form of duty than the usual sense of duty that resides in the realm of self-sacrifice or pleasing others. A sense of achievement takes me to a state of durable happiness by letting me be aware that I strived hard to be the best I can be. In contrast, I may derive happiness when people praise me for my success in something but this happiness would be temporary in nature because others will stop praising me as soon as I become unsuccessful or not as-successful. An externally derived happiness is temporary by its nature.

Considering various forms of journeys taken in the walks of life, I would say that achievement-centered journeys lead us to become more productive and purposeful. The drive for achievement could make us implicitly duty bound if the assigned goals are of certain qualities. Einstein may have done little work of conscious charity but I know that his achievements have implicitly and explicitly made tangible contributions to me and the world in general. That may not be true to a person who is driven to achieve wealth and frantically trading shares in the stock market. This latter person may be making a lot of money and even giving some to charity with explicit consciousness, but I would not be inspired to say that the person is building a better world. The person may very well be found to be doing his duty!

Today, while Nepalese intelligentsia is being trained in Western style of management that strongly emphasizes on results, I worry about its unintended side effects. This management style seeks clarity and measurability of roles, goals, and job description, and decides on the merit of an actor based on the results. I fear that this system would have punished me during my years of turmoil from Grade 8 to Grade 11 when my academic performance was declining in comparison to my early years of schooling, and my self-esteem would likely have been destroyed by those punishments. Having being spared by my parents from a result-oriented evaluation, I was presented with a window of time where I was able to introspect and correct my course of actions. When I look back into those failings of my youthful days and those of today, they make me aware of the risks and difficulties involved in the path of achievement. They let me realize how determination, perseverance, and patience can help us achieve even unrealistic sounding goals; I feel that simple folks like us can be perceived as talented when we work with passion and energy. Today, I am thankful that my younger years were not solely driven by duty and I was encouraged to set an eye on future achievements however distant they may be.

Coming back to the original question of how may I assign duties to so many seekers, I would like to think that I would not be. I would be more than happy if I could only set a general goal for each person that is reflective of his/her quality. Unless we are driven by broadly defined goals and all of us are self-driven to achieve them, we will be too slow to catch up to the knowledge driven world of the 21st century. Although sounding self-centered at first glance, the achievement driven approach is certainly superior. As Marie Curie once said, “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity.”

While wishing that all people were self-driven to reach a noble high point, we cannot overlook the positive role of duty on those who deliberately prefer to be duty driven or do not carry sufficient capacity to be independent. At times, we may not even know our true potential until we do something, achieve somewhat, and realize the significance of that achievement. Therefore, doing our duty could become a pathway to discover our own self. Therefore, development of systems that are founded on the basis of duties, results, and improvements may indeed be helpful. There is certainly a room to learn from the world although it would be imprudent to think of a simple import of a system from one culture and context to another.

May I, however, say to the intelligent and educated people inspired to do something good for the society that we should eye on a big achievement that resonates with our intentions. Our inner intentions may be saying: “Let every child of my village be treated humanly when he or she is in distress!” “Let every person in my town experience cleanliness of his or her body, mind, home, and environment!” “Let my country be free of corruptions!” Solutions will come to our mind only after we can grasp a cause and stay committed to it. As documented by a Nepali poet Bhanubhakta, a poor Ghansi had constructed a Kuwa for the good of his community whereas a rich and educated person like him had not even thought about it. If we are committed to act with good intentions, we will find the necessary resources and our dreams will come true. Our consciousness will discover the path of success and seemingly impossible will become possible, be it personal or public in scope.

In conclusion, we have had enough of duties that have kept us at a state of stagnation. It is time that we be achievement-driven and let our duties be implicitly fulfilled as the byproducts of our achievements! With that mindset, we can take every new prospect of our journey as a step to reach a larger goal. May we write an achievement based resume of ours and that of our nations!

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