Three Surprising (but Enduring) Lessons I Learnt at MIT
As I get closer to my 20th anniversary (wow…time flies!) of arriving to the US as a graduate student at MIT, I find myself reflecting on the various lessons I have learnt over the last two decades. Of course, MIT was intellectually as rewarding as I had expected (and more), but, even more importantly, my two years there also taught me some surprising lessons, which have served me well over the years.
- Stop comparing yourself to others, and focus on what you need to get done: In my first few weeks after starting at MIT, I remember going on long walks along the Charles river in Cambridge, MA, while thinking to myself that MIT had perhaps made a mistake in admitting me, because everyone around me seemed so damn smart! Over the next few months, while talking to some of my peers, who had gradually become good friends, many admitted to grappling with similar thoughts. After a semester or so, I was eventually able to get over this perception of inadequacy, and graduated MIT with almost twice the number of required credits and a GPA of ~4.7/5.0 .
- Be clear about what you will not pay attention to: Top US research universities can be quite an “intellectual fiesta,” especially if, like me, you harbor strong curiosity about a wide range of areas. For example, on a given day at MIT, you’d have the “problem” of deciding whether you’d want to go listen to a Nobel-prize winning Economist, or hear a Fortune 50 CEO address a student club over at Sloan, or to walk across the street to attend a really interesting symposium at the Media Lab. Trying to balance this “free-ranging” intellectual curiosity with an ambitious course-load, along with the multiple RA/TA positions I hustled for and held to pay for my expenses, forced me to always think really hard about things that I was not going to pay attention to. This habit of being very clear about what not to focus on continues to serve me well even now — almost two decades later.
- Learn the art of the hustle: A few days after arriving in Cambridge, MA from India, I learnt that the professor, who had graciously indicated that he might hire me as an RA, had just been denied tenure at MIT. So there I was, with just $1000 in my bank account, and trying to figure out where I was going to get the $100,000 I would need over the next two years to pay for my MIT education. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. So over the next month or so, I researched all of the faculty members at MIT, who either taught courses or did research in areas in which I knew something, and sent short emails to introduce myself, letting them know that I was looking for RA/TA positions, and asked if they could spare 15 minutes to meet with me. To my pleasant surprise, my emails resulted in meetings with several professors all over the campus. Starting with these initial meetings, I gradually began learning the art of networking my way into various professors’ research groups/labs/classes and positioning myself for interesting TA/RA positions. I must have eventually gotten really good at this (smile), given the variety of campus jobs that funded my two years at MIT: TA in Statistics for undergrads, TA in Negotiation for business school students, RA in the Haptics lab, TA in Technical Writing for undergrads, and a TA/RA in the Entrepreneurship Center at the business school.
As I look back, the art of the hustle has perhaps been one of the most surprising (and enduring) lessons that MIT taught me. It served me well later in founding and successfully growing my first company, when I eventually finished my graduate education (phew!) after picking up a degree from Stanford. Finally, this art of the hustle has also enabled me to make my modest contributions in helping to scale Evalueserve almost 8X (from $18M/year to $140M/year in revenues) over the last decade.
Note: This post is based on an answer I have written on Quora in the past, and has also appeared as a post on Linkedin Pulse.