Freeriding as a national passtime

I have wondered how countries like India, where the average person on the street is smart, if not streetsmart, still fail to do the basics right let alone reel in major innovations.

Even a school dropout working in a kirana store knows how to compute the balance instantly for a total of Rs. 243 if I hand out Rs. 500 (pre-demonetisation example, I admit). In fact there is a good chance he would even ask you if you have three rupees so he can give you a round Rs. 260.

Same scenario played out in a McDs in the US with a high school grad at the till will end in misery for everyone involved.

I now have a theory that explains this conundrum.

A country like US has many extremely smart, enterprising individuals who take the entire nation forward. They are the ones who build successful companies, invent technologies that drive the next revolution, and progress humankind to the next frontier.

If you were to plot number of citizens by their IQ, you would have a few with very high IQ and then a precipitous fall to mediocrity or worse. You are essentially left with a nation of freeriders.

The only way for the first lot to succeed is making it dead easy for the rest. Build a system for dummies. Assume the average person needs to be told a hot coffee is… wachamacallit… HOT. Provide a checklist so an employee doesn’t need to apply their own limited cranial capacity. Develop metrics and measurement methods to ensure conformity.

This sounds tragic but it is what makes countries like US work. Bold inventions at one end and foolproof (read dumbproof) systems at the other.

Now let’s contrast with India. For starters, you have fewer adventurous lot given our education and risk-averse parenting. (This is of course changing with a generational change in attitude towards risk-taking.) Even those who do break the mould do not appreciate the need to dumb things down for the rest because you know that the average lot is fairly smart. What you end up with is few bright stars that fail to achieve full potential because human intervention at the ground level is the weakest link.

That’s the reason you don’t get your juice on time because the pretentious waiter who takes pride in storing a complex order in memory (probably does on most occasions) dropped the ball on you. That’s the reason your name or address is typically misspelt because the person transferring the information from your form thinks she knows better. (A recent example: My address was spelt Pristage Grove while I had written in Caps, Prestige Ozone! I won’t even go into how many times my name is spelt wrong!!). That’s the reason why you skipped and fell at the hotel because there was no Wet Floor sign (except hotels that cater to an international audience) because they expect you to know it’s wet… because it looks wet.

Between the two options, while we can wallow in false pride about being a nation of a billion smart folks, I’d rather have it the other way because it ensures a higher quality of life for everyone.

[I don’t mean to ignore the role of other factors such as work ethic, resources etc in determining a nation’s prosperity. Those may be for another day, another post.]


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