We don’t analyse it much, but it’s astonishing what we do to stay relevant. Relevant to who? Why, to our kith and kin, our friends and neighbours, the people we work for, the people we work with, the people who work for us, indeed, to the section of the whole wide world that involves us!
The flip side to this treadmill is the innate fear of suddenly not being relevant. Nothing hits our self-esteem harder.
Because, as some life coach once said, we are a culture of doing rather than being. We judge ourselves by what we do, how much power and pelf we garner. In a culture that raises and lowers the relevance bar on pure whimsy, our significance is, all too sadly, judged by others.
People confuse relevance with fame. The first lasts virtually forever, the second shines bright, then turns off just as abruptly. Which is how relevance has come to wrap itself in some astoundingly superficial miasma. It has become all about throwing the most lavish party, building a mansion that reaches to the sky, winning election after election... you get the picture, don’t you? It’s the labels you sport, the brands you wear, the car you drive, the outrageous stuff you churn out in literature, art, haute couture, music and theatre. It’s equated with grabbing eyeballs, not holding them for any length of time. It’s come to mean garnering the most amount of likes on social media, being discussed at soirees and cultural dos, becoming the talk of the town. What people do not realise is that the talk of the town rarely stays the course; they are talked about for a while and then they fade away. That’s not relevance, that’s grabbing your moment in the sun.
The thing about this ephemeral relevance is that it is akin to jogging hard to stay in the same place. Those who become relevant, those who acquire fame and its corresponding weightage, never get used to being out of the limelight, not being relevant anymore. So the bid to stay relevant becomes a frantic one. To this end, they make endless compromises; they shut down their inner voice, they commit acts of modern-day heresy, they do it all with an eye fixed on the main goal. To stay relevant. Because, then, it would all have been worth it.
To revert to semantics, relevance is the noun form of the adjective ‘relevant’, which means ‘important to the matter at hand’. Ergo, not being relevant relegates one to a life less important.
Accordingly, the gurus come out of the woods and the woodwork, tell you how to be relevant, and stay relevant. Stay connected, they say, stay wired, stay on top of the publicity machine, stay eternally young. Lean in, keep your finger on the pulse of the young, network like mad, socialise till your smile hurts, pray hard, push hard.
As the world spins faster, becomes more ephemeral, the relevance movement acquires its own frenzy. Everyone does the ‘relevance salsa’ in their own style.
Relevance assumes quite another scale of importance when it comes to politicians. It’s no exaggeration to say they would do, and actually do, just about anything to stay relevant. There is nothing worse than for a politician to lose relevance, to lose an election, to lose his voters, to lose the ear of ‘those who matter’. So, the politician will go on padyatras, stage protests, stage dramas in the well of the House, do anything to catch and hold the public eye, even if just for that fleeting moment.
The organisation will do anything to undercut its rivals, sell low, sell cheap, go on a PR blitz.
The businessman will work himself to the bone, neglecting his wife, children, scoffing at a work-life balance.
The filmstar will get his PR agent to manufacture news: X saves little girl from tiger! Y donates crores to charity! Z breaks his collarbone while performing high-altitude stunts! S learns how to Be Human! Some film starlets of an earlier age turn (excellent) bloggers and authors.
Sportsmen and women lobby hard to get on teams, and never mind about honing their skills.
Rockers change their groupies sooner than they change clothes. Models come and go, and after their turn is done, constantly reinvent themselves in order to stay in the limelight.
The artist will set up an installation purely to shock and titillate rather than inform or entertain; a few thousand hits on social media and his relevance is established for the nonce.
A certain Mr Z daily puts something new out on the social media network he founded and now runs.
The author will write a book, then immediately turns marketer, goes into hard sell overdrive to sell that book. Yet others will churn out less-than-mediocre stuff under the impression that quantity equals relevance somehow.
The item girl will denigrate the competition, will promise to strip every time the Indian cricket team wins; the rapper will sneak in even more outrageous lyrics to draw eyeballs... and gasps!
So much for real-life people. Even Archie Andrews has undergone a makeover to emerge more hip!
And since many people (politicians lead the way here) feel their relevance is directly linked to the demolition of their rivals’ relevance, this relevance thing becomes a two-edged sword: one edge poised over their own heads, the other able to cut through the opposition.
Upping one’s game
However, not everything connected to relevance is all bad. This same desire to stay significant impels people to tap their inner resources, aim higher, be the best they can be. The creative set produces its best efforts. The techie works that much harder. The lovers love that much more intensely. The businessman ups his game, the organisation ups its game. The desire to stay in the game spurs us onto delivering our best. We learn to speak better, to write better, to behave better and willy-nilly, to think better.
Now there’s the rub. Because many people do not realise that in this age of information overload, relevance is a constantly shifting sandbar: today’s heroes are tomorrow’s have-beens. The currency, the pace, the yardsticks are all constantly in a state of flux.
So, is the quest for relevance a hopeless one? No, not at all. Wise ones say that, like pretty much everything that matters, relevance too is found within oneself. And there are two ways to seek relevance. One is to build yourself as a brand, keep updating, keep upgrading, keep at it. To attempt to always stay on top of trends, to reinvent yourself every few years, to work all the social media networks at the same time, and work them well. It’s the relevance treadmill, remember?
The other way is to be a non-player in the relevance sweepstakes. Here, too, you invest in yourself, but you aim for stillness rather than relevance. The aim is to stay still, to stay calm, to shore up your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. To be content with who you are, what you have. To redefine success. To accept, then face down your fears.
To recognise and acknowledge your strengths, to play to these strengths. To cultivate a sense of humour, of equanimity. To be open to everything life brings your way, to be curious. To be always open to change. And to surround yourself with the people who love you for what you are, for whom you are always relevant. Because, as everybody plus J K Rowling says: in the end, love is everything. Without love, you are nothing.
The relevance junkies constantly seek and find new causes which keep them under the banner that spells ‘Consequence’. The non-junkies know better: they seek and find causes that keep them content. So, it’s simple: your relevance begins and ends with you.
Let me conclude with a perceptive quote from actor Bill Nighy: “One of my great regrets is that I spent too long putting people’s status and reputation ahead of their more important qualities. I learned far too late in life that a long list of letters after someone’s name is no guarantee of compassion, kindness, humour, all the far more relevant stuff.”
Now, there’s someone who has cracked the Relevance Code! Relevance does not apply to them
A word about those who don’t live by the relevance timeline, simply because they are always relevant, effortlessly relevant. These are beings who know what many others do not: that living below the radar often brings one immense satisfaction, happiness and zero stress. Instead of leading driven lives, they set the pattern of their days. Instead of following trends or seeking to set them, these individuals tap into their inner selves to do what they know they can do best. In going about their work, their very lives quietly and peacefully, they unwittingly set benchmarks for the rest of the world.
Who are these people, you ask. Why, they are people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, APJ Abdul Kalam, who followed their particular beacon, who articulated and then stood up for their beliefs without really caring if the hordes were following them. They are people like Ruskin Bond, who goes about his writing with the minimum of fuss, not in the least interested in engaging with the publicity machine. Men like Khushwant Singh, who wrote his daily quota without giving a damn about what people thought of his works or him. Women like Amrita Sher-Gil, who painted what she wanted to paint, and critics be damned, Toni Morrison, who did the same with words. JRR Tolkien, who created a fascinating world mainly for his own satisfaction. TV moghuls like Oprah, who made a career of spreading good cheer and largesse to many.
There are as many anonymous or low-key players, too. The talented chef who goes about quietly innovating, discovering, cooking and serving great food. The captains of industry who help countless employees of their organisations even as they help themselves. The true-blue activists who risk life and limb to stand up and protest against the innumerable injustices that prevail around us.
These are people whose creativity and capabilities lie beyond the realm of temporary timelines. These are the people who are true catalysts for change, so their long-term relevance can never be in doubt.
There is a point to be made here: you may like these people or loathe them. You may like their work or oppose it. But, in the ultimate analysis, they are eternally relevant; gone but not easily forgotten. Unlike all the desperate rabble who try their level best to stay relevant... for the time being.