1) Do grades matter?
2) Pedigree - IIT, IIM, AIIMS ...
3) NOW is the right time
4) What is Love?
1) Do grades matter?
My Life … My Career … My Decision
In 1994, I was in Class X in City Montessori School, Lucknow Station Road branch. Every time my father saw me he had just one thing to say: “It is your Board year, your scores will be with you for the rest of your life - work hard and score at least 90%.” And it was not just my father, my mother, my uncles, my aunts, my grandfather … the whole universe seemed to be concerned with my high school marks. Till date I continue to love and respect each one of them, but as a young boy this love and respect was much higher. I believed them and I did work very hard.
I started waking up at 3 AM so that I could study in peace. Getting high marks in Class X was my only mission in life and I gave all I had, to this goal. The board exams eventually happened and despite of all my efforts I ended up with a mere 79%. My parents covered up their sadness by claiming that my marks were the highest anyone had ever scored in my extended family but, I knew that they were unhappy. My unhappiness with myself was reinforced when my school decided that I was unworthy of being allowed to study (Physics, Chemistry, Maths) in Class XI. This literally meant the end of all meaning in my life. Cracking the IIT entrance exam is all I had ever dreamed of. I actually thought of ending my meaningless life as I had messed it up completely.
A friend of mine who also got kicked out of the merit list, pointed out that our School had another branch where the cut offs were lower and, if I was accepted there I could still have a reason to live. I applied to our Gomtinagar branch and got through. On my first day in the new branch I met Suresh (name changed) who scored 96% in Class X and Mahesh (again name changed) who scored 82%, both of them were really kind and we became friends. Friendship actually meant nothing in Class XI except Hello on seeing each other since we all were focused on one mission – the IIT entrance examination. In the words of my father “God has allowed you the last opportunity of your life - if you waste this one then your life will be worthless.” I believed this too and suddenly the only thing I really cared about was mission IIT. In the middle of all this I managed to convince my father that cycling 32 kms everyday to my last school might have led to my poor performance and he should overstretch himself to buy me a Hero Puch so that I can focus on my preparation.
Class XII finished with Suresh scoring 94% and landing up in IIT, Delhi. Mahesh scoring 85% and dropping a year for IIT preparation and myself with 76% and a decision to not even appear in the IIT entrance (how this happened is a story in itself and I will cover it later). We all went our separate paths and never stayed in touch. At 28 years of age, I was promoted to a Vice President in Citibank, London and out of curiosity I searched LinkedIn for Suresh and Mahesh. Suresh went ahead to do MBA from IIM Bangalore while Mahesh ended up with B Sc from Delhi University followed by MBA from Symbiosis Pune. Suresh was an Assistant Vice President in a Bank in Chennai and Mahesh was a Manager in a Private Company in Delhi. I looked out of the window next to my desk on the 14th floor of my office in Canary Wharf and asked the question “Do grades matter?”
It is now 2017, exactly 23 years since my Class X board exams. Now, when I look back I do not remember a single time when I was ever asked about my Class X board exams. Maybe in form or two, they asked me if I had the cut-off of 60% but that is it. I am pretty sure at this moment of my life, that I would be doing exactly what I am doing irrespective of 98%, 55% or my hard earned 79%. I wonder if this is any different for any of contemporaries. On this topic I have two pieces of advice. To the parents – “Before pressuring your kids for high grades, please ask yourself how many times in your own life have you been asked for your grades.” To the students – “Do work hard for your grades but do not take them to heart, your grades will have zero correlation to your success in life. The only thing which will matter is how clear you are with whatever you wish to do for the rest of your life.”
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2) Pedigree - IIT, IIM, AIIMS ...
My Life … My Career … My Decision
Pedigree is like a college caste system. IIT best, REC second best …
Just like Farhan in 3 Idiots, I was born an Engineer. And not just an Engineer, I was born an IIT Engineer because what worth is an Engineer if he or she is not from IIT. I grew up in a world where Engineering meant IIT, Medicine meant AIIMS, Management meant IIM and extraordinary brilliance meant IAS. I remember my daily routine since I was in Class III, everyday my Dad used to take me jogging to a boundary wall and then point his finger at the building inside saying “I want to see you there”. The building was Institute of Engineering and Technology, Lucknow and I am not quite sure if my father knew that IET was different from IIT. Nevertheless, unlike my father who was the son of a farmer, who studied in a Hindi medium government school; I was the son of a Sub Inspector in Police, who studied in an English medium private school. I was pretty sure right from Class IV that I definitely had to become an Engineer, that too from IIT and not from IET.
I still remember my friend in Class VI Bhushan (name changed) who suddenly stopped playing football with us. Bhushan got to know that the elder brother of his classmate got selected to IIT and he had been preparing since Class V. Bhushan felt he was already too late. We were three friends in our neighborhood, united in our passion to become IIT Engineers. And we always looked forward to hours long power cuts, so that we had a genuine reason not to study and have long discussions over our walk. Bhushan vanished from the football field and also from these walks. We could see a candle in his room but his parents would say that he is not at home so that we did not disturb his preparations. Sometimes I felt I was losing out to Bhushan but then I reminded myself that I am super smart, I will study hard starting Class IX and I will crack the IIT entrance exam in the first attempt. My over confidence was never shaken by the fact that I never actually got good marks in my class in either Science or in Maths. In retrospect I was an overconfident fool who would just refuse to trust the school marking system.
In Class IX, we relocated to another neighborhood not extremely far from my old one. I would often see my other friend but I never ever met Bhushan again. Unfortunately not till date. With the new address I also got a new School. My old school City Montessori School, Aliganj Branch was only till VIII and I never thought of changing my school as CMS is considered the best school for serious students in Lucknow. I was fortunate to be admitted to our Station Road branch which was 16 kms from Jankipuram (my new neighborhood). Using public transport was both expensive and time consuming. For an IIT aspirant in Class IX, every second counts. I ended up cycling 32 kms everyday to school. Unfortunately, this led to me sleeping throughout my classes. But that did not matter, I assumed I was doing well in PCM and I did not care about Social Studies, Literature or for anything else. I had a simple rule, in Class IX I started studying PCM of Class X, the plan was to study PCM of 1st year Engineering in Class XII so if I can understand one year ahead of my peers, cracking the IIT entrance exam will be easy.
In Class XII I realized that I did not even want to be an Engineer (how this happened is a story in itself and I will cover it later). I made a simple rule for myself: I will only study subjects which will help me with a career in Finance. This did work for me and I had relative success in my corporate career. I lived in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, London, Barcelona, New York, Ann Arbor, Dublin, Munich and finally settled down in Dehradun. In 2016 I had Dengue, my first serious sickness ever. I rushed to a Doctor recommended by my friends and followed him blindly, after three weeks I was completely cured. As I observed the sunset in my balcony, I questioned my stupidity, I did not even enquire if the Doctor I was consulting was from AIIMS, actually I did not even bother to find out if he had an MBBS degree. I was so sick that if he was a Baba who was healing people with his powers I would not even have thought twice to go to him.
What about you? When you fall sick do you make sure that the doctor is from AIIMS or do you just follow the recommendations of your friends? The best doctor in Dehradun is not for AIIMS, the best Civil Engineer is not from IIT, the CEO of the largest company here is not from IIM, the longest serving DM of Dehradun was a veterinary Doctor. Where is the pedigree in real life? I do not see it anywhere. My friend, life is very simple. I give you a salary of 20,000 that means I expect work of 40,000 if you give me work worth 50,000 you get promoted and if you give me work worth 39,000 you get replaced. That is it. If you work for me and I give you an analysis to do, after some time, you come to me and say “Sorry I could not do the analysis but I am from IIT, IIM”. How do you think I would react? How will you react?
Education is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. The idea of joining a college is to develop one’s ability to deliver. And, the ability to deliver is the only thing which matters in real life. I fail to understand why in India we are so crazy for pedigree. If you take 100 successful people and see how many of them are from pedigree colleges you will realize that not even 20% are from the so called top colleges. In fact, people who made a really big difference to the world like Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Steve Jobs, Dhirubhai Ambani … were all college dropouts.
I have lived and worked in over 6 countries, this is how people work towards their goal outside India. Let’s assume I am in School in UK and at some point of time in my life I decide I want to be a Civil Engineer. I will try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. If I cannot I will try for Imperial or City College. If I cannot I will try for Leeds or Lancaster. The college I actually get into will depend on my capacity and competition that year. But even If I get into the lowest ranked college, I will work hard during college so that I come out as a jolly good Civil Engineer. Simply because I know that the only thing which will matter in real life is the ability to deliver.
Here is how we do it in India. Parents sell their lands to put their kids into IIT coaching and students study 16 hours a day from Class V to prepare for the IIT entrance examination. 70 of the 100 who make it to IIT realize on the very first day that they do not want to become Engineers, they are more interested in Management, Bureaucracy … Why on Earth they did not realize this earlier? Not only have they taken up a seat and prevented someone who really wanted to become an Engineer to actually become one. These people have messed up their own career as I am pretty sure that 4 years of mechanical engineering will be of no use in a Banking career. They sacrificed sports, friends, and social life for the past 10 years or so for something which they did not even want. The most disheartening bit is that only 2% make it to IIT so the remaining 98% are depressed for the rest of their life because they could not reach IIT only to realize that they do not want to be Engineers. All this only because we do not care about the ability to deliver all we care about is Pedigree.
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3) NOW is the right time
My Life … My Career … My Decision
Since Class IV, I was quite clear that I had to become an IIT Engineer. I used to straight fail in every other subject except Science and Maths. Deeply influenced by films where scientists made accidental discoveries, I set up a small lab in our attic, convinced my mother to finance beakers, test tubes and pipes. I used to randomly wander in the neighborhood collecting weird plants and boiling them in my equipment, hoping for some miraculous discovery which will either save the world or give me super powers. None of those happened; all I ended up doing was making my only beaker explode.
Chemistry was expensive and it did not feel right, engineers do not work with beakers and test tubes – gradually I moved on to electronics. Unfortunately electronics was even more expensive, the generosity of a cousin brother kept my passion alive. Numerous experiments and countless electrical shocks over the next couple of years, led to my best science project in Class VII – the AC to DC converter and speed controller. It was a transformer connected to a couple of resistors and capacitors lighting up a torch bulb and running a small fan. My School sent me to a State level science modeling competition which had participation from students up to Class XII. I bagged the fourth prize; the judges were impressed that a student in Class VII understood concepts which are taught in Class XI. That victory sent joys across my extended family and everyone including myself was quite convinced that not only was I born to be an engineer but also that I was on track to IIT.
In Class VIII, I was introduced to Computers for the first time. We were taught coding in GWBASIC. It was love at first sight. Within months I reached a stage where I could write programs faster than the teacher could finish dictating what to do. It was no feat, they were standard easy ones, print first 10 even numbers etc … Now I did not love Electronics any more, my destiny transformed to an IIT software engineer. I was so confident of my applied passion that my relatively average marks in Science and Maths never deterred my resolve.
My School City Montessori School, Lucknow was widely considered the costliest and best private school in town. The school had unrelenting focus on academics; more than 20% of its student every year would leave school with more than 90% marks and admission into a top Engineering or Medical college. At least when I was there they did not even have humanities or commerce streams in the school. The school also had the reputation of organizing big national and international level school competitions. The funny part was that our teams rarely won, as on the one hand the competition was being organized in the school compound on the other hand principal, teachers and students considered the competition a distraction from academics. Somehow I started getting interested in debating and representing the school team was a piece of cake because only a few idiots would want to take their eyes off IIT or AIIMS and invest time in competitions.
QUANTA 95 an international level competition organized by my school changed my life forever. I was in class XI and was part of the school debating team. We competed during the day and in the evening we had bonfires and cultural programs. I distinctly remember sitting in my group with a couple of non Indians, a team from Kochi and a few folks from Delhi. I started the conversation with “How is your preparation going?” This was the only thing we used to talk amongst ourselves and I thought it was logical to ask this as IIT entrance exam is what everyone in Class XI is focused on. I got the weirdest looks of my lifetime, my fellow event participants responded “What preparation, I want to be a Fashion Designer, a Channel Marketer, a Sportsman … ” Being a debater the feeling of being super smart and super intelligent came naturally to me. But, I was shocked at my ignorance, I said to myself: “Maybe Engineering is the best career option for me, but it will be best if I at least knew what else existed, forget about knowing or understanding, I had not even heard of any other career option.”
I panicked, and I suddenly felt that I knew nothing about where I was heading. There was hardly any good source of information, no internet, no counselors, the only thing I had was Education Times supplement which used to come with the Times of India on every Monday. I started reading every single word of that supplement. Within a month I realized that Computer Engineering is all about sitting at a desk with hardly any interactions with the real world, it gave me goose bumps, despite of my love for programming there was no way on Earth I was going to spend the rest of my life behind a desk. In my mind, my long cherished dream of becoming an IIT software engineer was worthless now and I panicked even more because I had never dreamt of anything else except IIT so if not Engineering then what?
During the break after Class XI my parents felt I was grown up enough to make a solo trip to Dehradun (my home town). My village happens to be right behind the Indian Millitary Academy. I got fascinated at the view of traffic stopping for two Gentlemen cadets passing from one IMA gate to another. Respect, adventure, honesty and quality of life. Army had everything which I wanted from my life. I came back to Lucknow all pumped up and instead of studying 12 hours every day I started jogging 12 kms every day followed by free hand exercises. Around the same time Param Vir Chakra movie was released, I saw it several times and had its song ‘My first love my nation, nation, nation …’ recorded on both sides of an audio cassette. The song used to play in the background at full volume while I sweated out. This song playing stopped only when my mother could not take it anymore and one fine day she confronted me at 5:15 in the morning saying “Now I will also get into the Army and so would the neighboring Aunty and everyone else in the neighborhood as everyone has been listening to this song over and over again. Stop this song right now and let everyone around sleep in peace.” 6 months into this deeply passionate training, I filled out the NDA form only to realize that I was medically unfit for the Army as I had knock knees.
I had only 4 more months before I left school and I had no idea of what I wanted to do after School. No Engineering, no Army, now what? I started getting nightmares where I was standing in the middle of the road and just could not move. Back to my collection of Education Times, I read each of those newspapers again, word by word. I used to seek information from everyone; my favorite questions were: What do you do? What do you like about what you do? What do you dislike about your job? It could be anyone, my co passenger in the train, my neighbor, my friend’s dad, absolutely anyone. I became so possessed with my research that I became shameless. We used to live in a Lower Income Group house and very close to our neighborhood we had big bungalows in huge plots. I remember knocking at the gate of a Chartered Accountant to understand CA. He came out a little surprised but was a nice man; he invited me in, gave me a glass of water and sweets and spent an hour explaining what CA was. Not every adventure was pleasing though, but I did not care. I had just one thought in my mind, this is my life and I need to figure out what to do with it.
Time passed and over the next couple of years several things changed but the continuous process of thinking, introspecting and taking my own decisions continues till date. My confusion and earnest attempt at taking a smart career decision paid off as I ended up having IITians work for me (a throughout average student) while some of my friends were still finishing Engineering. But not everyone is as lucky, I was fortunate that I had that evening which changed my life and set me thinking about my career. I hope something happens in your life which does set you thinking. Maybe this text becomes your turning point but chances also are that for many of you that turning point may never arrive at all. Your eco system will keep telling you, focus on Class X then think about your career, then focus on Class XII then think about your career, then get into Engineering then think about your career, then get into MBA then think about your career, then get married then think about your career, then have kids then think about your career. And, finally you may never end up thinking about your career and you will most likely end up giving exactly the same sequence of advice to your own children.
The choice is yours, you can listen to your eco system or you can declare to yourself “My Life … My Career … My Decision”. Whatever you choose one thing is for sure that everything, I repeat everything, in your life will depend on that one single decision. If you set out to be an Engineer, life is one way. If you set out to join the Army, it is another way. If you set out to make a career in Management, it is again completely different. Where you live, what you wear, who your friends are, who you marry, which school your kids go to … everything will depend on just one thing: your career decision. Interestingly, even after you leave this body you will still be known by the career you pursue. This is how important this decision is. And the right time to start thinking about your career is NOW. It is not 1 minute later, it is NOW. Whether you are a school kid, or a college student, or a doctoral fellow or a professional who is not happy with his job: the right time for you to think about your career is NOW. You maybe super smart and super intelligent but if you catch a train to Mumbai when you actually wanted to go to Delhi you will never reach Delhi until you change course. And living amongst you might be some really average people who have just one thing working for them; they catch a train for Delhi when they wanted to go to Delhi.
Chances are you do not even know that you need to take a career decision, for 90% of my student life I was pretty clear that I wanted to be an Engineer. If you want to test whether or not you have taken a smart career decision. Just pick a piece of paper and write a 10 line essay about Engineering, Medicine or whatever else you wish to pursue. Do not write illogical lines (as was the case with me) like I am interested in Engineering, I want to be an Engineer over and over again. Write (What Is, Education, Skills, Positives, Challenges and How a day goes) in the profession you have chosen. The depth of this essay will reveal to you whether or not your career decision is smart. If you are unsatisfied with your level of knowledge about whatever you wish to do for the rest of your life, then I suggest you drop everything and become paranoid starting right NOW.
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4) What is Love?
My Life … My Career … My Decision
As far as I can remember the only consistent distraction to mission IIT was the natural attraction for girls. I was first attracted to a girl in Class VII, I still remember cycling near my neighborhood and hiding behind a tree to see a senior girl dance in the rain on her terrace. School was only till VIII so she left a couple of months later.
I officially had my first girl friend in Class VIII. My classmate who was also my mouth spoken sister told me that her neighbor who was a year junior to us wanted to speak to me. We met in Nehru Bal Vatika, I asked her “Is what my sister saying true?”She said “Yes”. And bingo she was my girlfriend. I attended a birthday party with her and she gave me her picture. I was proud of my accomplishment and ensured that my mom accidentally saw the picture so that I could feel embarrassed and also subtly declare that I have moved up in life. Sheetal (name changed) tried several times to meet me, talk to me, and come close to me. In School, I was made in charge of ensuring that all kids go down during lunch break and she would find some reason or other to stay back. And, that scared me like anything. What if there was a power cut and we had a kid? My father will not think twice before shooting me. I am not joking, I actually thought that. Because until Class VIII that was all the exposure I had, in movies hero and heroine meet, there is darkness and suddenly there is a kid. The first time I got to understand the baby making process was in Class IX. I finished Class VIII, moved to another branch and never heard or saw Sheetal again; those were the times without Facebook. Now when I tell my old school friends about Sheetal they do not believe that she was my girl friend. To be honest neither do I.
My new school was 16 kms away and I used to spend an hour and a half one way to reach school in public transport. In Class X, one day a senior girl crossed me in the corridors of the school and it was love at first sight. First step was to research about her. I learnt that she was a bright student and scored 85% in Class X. After a couple of days she delivered a speech in the school assembly on “Sex Education in India”, all I could do was to giggle while she spoke with poise and confidence. She was the daughter of an army officer and from a very well to do family, changing cars every second day, sometimes she used to come on a scooty. Next, it was time to impress her, so I started cycling to school, 32 kms every single day so that I could cycle close to her for two traffic lights near Hazratganj. But she was on scooty and I on a cycle - the best I ever got to see was her back.
Films are our biggest influencers so I started thinking “look at the divide between her and me”. She was a bright student, I struggled to pass. She was a confident public speaker and I have never even been on a stage. She was from a well to do family and lived in a huge mansion while I was the son of an honest sub inspector living in a Low Income Group house. She was the most attractive girl in town and I almost looked like a cancer patient with grey hair and 10 inch biceps. There was absolutely no match and there was no point in proposing until I did something in life.
I resolved to work hard for her. First academics, I started waking up at 3 AM to study hard for boards. While I did transition from the possibility of scoring below 60% to actually getting 79% in Class X, this was not good enough to earn me a PCM seat in Class XI so I had to shift to Gomtinagar branch. I saw the girl for a total of 3 times in my life but I got so possessed that I was not going to stop at anything. I purchased “Encyclopedia of Modern Body Building by Arnold Schwarzenegger” and started text book workouts. Within two months I transformed into pretty much the shape which I continue to maintain till today. I started debating, first with my friends in our neighborhood and then on stage. The only thing beyond my control was prosperity but I told myself once I got into IIT that will be sorted. Fortune had it otherwise my knack for debating eventually led me to dropping the idea of IIT and to start preparing for a career in finance. No matter what I did my continuous motivation was the aim of raising myself to a level where I could propose to her. I had no friends, possibility of getting attracted to or of having feelings for any other girl did not exist - in my mind she destined to be my life partner. When I felt low I would put this song from the movie Taal “mere saath hai tu mere paas hai tu” and stared at a 3 inch by 2 inch picture of her from a school magazine reminding myself that all this was for true love and I got back to my hard work. From Class X to graduation, almost 6 years of my life the girl was my single biggest motivation.
I always had a knack for programming and even though I was not preparing to become an Engineer I was still learning computers. Gradually as internet made the world smaller, in the third year of graduation, I learnt how to send email. I used to send almost 250 emails every single day to different combinations of her name hoping that one of those emails will reach her and she would get to know of my existence. It did not work out. I then somehow figured out her postal address and got a neighborhood Bhabi to pen friend her; unfortunately the return letter landed up with my Bhaiya and he instantly disapproved of the approach. One thing led to another and I was selected to JNU, in those days of limited internet access that was a big deal. No one in my network had gone to JNU and I felt as if I had arrived in life. I searched my long lost friends from Class X and enquired about her. Only to learn that the girl was smart but not academic oriented. She was looking for a career in modeling and not Engineering or Commerce. Plus there was a rumor that she might actually have a couple of good friends who were boys. I was devastated, that was the only time I felt depressed in life. I remember not eating for 3 days and shaving off my head, obviously to unprecedented wrath of my mom. I felt like a fool, I devoted 7 years of my life working hard for something which did not even exist.
One fine day in JNU, I opened the newspaper to see a familiar looking picture on the front page. It was the same girl, and as luck would have it she had moved much more ahead. The gap with which we started in Class X had become much larger - while I was struggling to get my first job she had become Miss India. Also, I figured out why my emails never reached her, I spelled her name with S while actually it started with a C. Obviously I was no longer motivated to think of her as my dream girl but the gap pinched me. And it continued to widen, she got married before me had kids before me … I still look forward to a day in my life when I will reach some status to compare myself with her. That day, I will invite her for dinner and tell her how much influence she had on me and also thank her that if it was not her I would most likely end up as a third grade techie.
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