Towards the latter stages of your time at the grand old IITs, you realize how subtly overwhelming the place can be. To be fair, most students here don’t really know why they are here. A few years of intense studying, a certain talent at solving maths, physics and chemistry questions and poof, all of a sudden you end up with your suitcase at the gates of this temple of knowledge, heralded as a hero everywhere, albeit totally confused on the inside.
You don’t complain because you are now perceived as generically successful, with the utmost faith that life somehow owes you some form of clarity down the line in lieu of your tremendous accomplishments. An undying faith that the pieces will all necessarily fall in place because of the efforts you put in on a desk while mind numbingly studying textbooks in the most structured way possible simply because someone told you to do so.
You hop into these gates with a bucket load of enthusiasm, a heart full of dreams and the greatest of expectations from life in general.
You hope you’ll find inspiring professors who make the words on strange Russian textbooks seamlessly enter your head almost as if you had written them yourself in the first place, while in reality, for the most part at least, you find distant, disinterested ‘academics’ who seem only incrementally more involved than you in the classroom.
You hope to find a culture that propagates unbounded thought and a people that are ready to break into new horizons but in reality you find a lot of people just like yourself.
Confused, hopeful and under pressure to make sense of their IIT tag.
So you go back down the road from where you came, doing that which got you here in the first place. Because being perceived to be successful is far easier than actually being successful.
After getting the freedom to do anything you wish, you forget to exercise the one that is most important. The freedom to make mistakes.
People become so focused on not getting it wrong, that they never take a risk to try and get it right.
The worst part of it is that, much like a drug, you get engulfed in all of this before you even know it.
From the moment you enter here, in the nascent fledgling stages of your college life, everything hits you like a whirlwind. So many options, so many choices and most dangerously, so many convincing opinions. It’s similar to reaching a crossroads and seeing throngs of people battling each other to get onto a few particularly populated roads. There are people ushering you onto it and everybody seems to be joining in. You join in too because common logic would dictate that it leads to somewhere good.
The fear of missing out is far too much.
Before you can realize, within a semester, you are asking around about volunteering for all these ‘cool’ clubs. Soon, there’s more WhatsApp groups on your phone than there are people you know. You have dozens of acquaintances but few friends. You look up to these ‘stud’ seniors, the same ones ushering people at the crossroads, as those gifted with the divine knowledge of the inner workings of the world.
You begin to go to all these fancy meetings, team treats and, most importantly by far, gain a feeling of social relevance.
Your POR becomes your social identity, your ‘colleagues’ become your social circle and your seniors become your ‘mentors’.
Of course, all of this doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in a step-by-step manner without you ever noticing that you are taking any steps at all.
You never realize it while it is happening, but it becomes starkly evident towards the twilight of your time here, that this culture influences your life choices far more than it should.
It’s almost amusing how some of the biggest teams in our glamorized college fests, Shaastra and Saarang, try to bring in naive freshers who are told that a certain club is ‘the best’. Everyone markets their team as the most quintessential cog of the clunky and vastly indifferent machine. You are told that joining them will give you exposure to everything worthwhile.
Some have evolved into portraying themselves as a pathway to prestigious jobs. Others show how professional they are by conducting stress interviews to select volunteers. Some boost their PR by aggressively marketing their team members as being generically successful. Some label theirs as the most eventful and diverse experiences you can possibly find.
And under the veil of all this glamour, pretentiousness and so called success, you find people who are just as lost and confused as anyone.
As a part of these circles, you subconsciously end up shaping your life around those who have walked a similar path before you. Their gospel eventually becomes your truth and their dreams morph into your ambitions.
More often that not, these eventually end up streamlining into your cliched glamorous jobs. Vast numbers of students sit for the major consulting and finance firms without any specific interest in them. If the interest isn’t there, then they convince themselves by generating the interest to validate their decisions. These paths are often perceived as the least resistant paths to generic success. Few would dare to question whether someone hired at these companies was genuinely successful. It is taken as a de-facto truth. Most people applying don’t bother that consultants spend most of their lives travelling, staring at excel sheets and making presentations while clocking in 16 hours a day. Most don’t know that the work life balance at Wall Street results in alarmingly high rates of mental health issues despite being surrounded by money in every which way.
You’ll find phenomenally talented all rounders; great at academics, having done high quality research, with great administrative capabilities, going down the same road. These people who could add genuine value to society by working in fields where such talent is really needed, instead choose the allure of being outwardly successful.
The only thing they really seem to engineer are their own resumes.
This is probably because the hiring process for some major companies, especially consultancy, is notoriously pedantic. People run after what are called ‘peaks’ which are essentially specific achievements that the company considers to be of value.
It promotes students at a tender stage in their life to run after certain milestones like a checklist that has little to do with their own interests but rather the company’s own perception of what they should find desirable in themselves.
And to top it off, these processes are subject to an incredible amount of subjectivity and at times, more dangerously, shadiness.
Even corporate selections at times are not totally straightforward. If you help a senior working for that company in their institute elections, then maybe you’ll get through easily. If your significant other knows someone significant, then you might just cross the line. You get the gist of it. If you have strings to pull, then, well, pull them.
A mediocre system warrants mediocre actions, right?
Institute elections and PORs are of course a whole other ball game. Regardless of the outward facade of professionalism in PORs, it is seldom a fair process internally. A lot of times the selection is done much before the actual process. Help out someone who got elected to a powerful post and you might boost your chances several fold. If you have bad blood with someone then god help you.
There are numerous instances of these that I have seen and some that I have experienced too. Sometimes, I have known I would have things easier than expected because I knew the right people. At other times, I’ve known I was competing with more than just the people applying with me but the people hiring themselves. For instance, for one of the positions that I applied for, I had heard several weeks before the actual process began from someone, that the person responsible for selecting wasn’t keen on taking me and was keen on taking someone else. As expected, I got some strange, and at times factually incorrect reasons, before being shown the door anyway and watched it pan out exactly as I was initially told it would. I guess these things can take a 180 degree turn if there are factors not necessarily in your control. This isn’t all that uncommon in an environment such as ours where the contribution of meritocracy in an achievement is oft shrouded in a veil of its own.
Either way, I do not wish to devalue these positions or professions and what they can add to you, both professionally and socially. But it is only after going through it all that you realize that you don’t always have much of a reason at a personal level for these choices. It just happens and at the end of it you can only look back and connect the dots to make head or tail of it. Those who do get into it all the way, for whatever reasons, good, bad or ugly, are often not doing work that is nearly as attractive as the fancy title they have. Talk to them and you’ll probably find out.
In this wide realm of possibilities that somehow narrow themselves down to a precious few ways to lead our lives, you must realize that what narrows them down are the confines of your own thoughts which with time, if you surrender to the world, cease to become your own. The only way to break out of it is to define your own version of success which you will realize more and more with time, is a very personal emotion.
Try learning more about yourself before you learn about the world.
It is only when you drown out the noise and are surrounded by silence can you hear the beating of your own heart.
And it is only when the shine from all that glitters around you finally wears off, do you begin to see the light that was always inside of you.