Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Why we should stop chasing numbers, and start chasing life!

It was precisely a decade ago when a surprisingly not so scorching May afternoon in Delhi was resulting in more profuse sweating than even a 50 degrees Celsius could have produced. It was the day for the Standard X board results after all. All the toil and trauma, all that renouncing the pleasures of your student life and getting hyper revved up for the board exams, all that drama, was now going to culminate, and it was one single number which was to hold not only the product of all your effort, but also the pathway to your destiny. It did not matter whether you were going to ace some subjects and were going to perform decently on others. It did not matter if you had started getting more and more better at the subjects that you were going to take up in higher secondary. All that mattered was how well you fared on those 5 odd days, while scribing answers to some random questions, in an examination set by a random panel, and on sheets of paper that were going to be evaluated by some random invigilator. 

Everyone in the circles was tense and fortunately, I was lucky enough to have the coolest of parents. They stood by me during the peak of the preparation and also during the horrid examination month. I might have withered without the solace I found in them no being very demanding. I knew of parents who were pretty peckish in demanding the best performance out of their wards. However, notwithstanding the lack of explicit performance levels being deemed mandatory by my parents, I in a way considered it an obligation to score well. And given how lackadaisical a student I always had been, I scored pretty well. But I'm not going to mention the exact percentage here because it'll contradict the very purpose of this article. I'm going to use this post as a lectern to share my own story, which is pretty ordinary and pretty similar to the stories of many others around you. It's been 10 long years since I got the first hallowed number of my life. You get more such sanctified numbers later on when you take up 10+2, then entrance examinations and then so on. And while I've just finished running the rate race with the conclusion of my MBA program just weeks ago, I can say you don't need to give a f**k about any of those consecrated numbers. 

Post scoring pretty well for my standards in 10th, everyone started feeling ecstatic and this catapulted me on the zenith of confidence. I took a lot of pride in scoring pretty well in science and I was definitely concerned about my not so impressive score in English. But no one seemed to care. That one final percentage was what made everyone feel eidetic and overjoyed. The way in which everyone around me just had one thing to talk about - my percentage, and then comparing it with that of others' and then coming up with conclusions of all sorts, it all made me feel that I have finally arrived. It all led me to believe that all I need to do in life at least for the next 6 to 8 years was to produce more and more numbers that had to be more substantial than the one I just got. I suddenly started viewing life as one big reality gameshow where I've gotta produce numbers, after numbers, all leading to each other, until one day, I'd produce a final number, and then there will be no more numbers to produce. I thought maybe this final number, if it stays as big as all numbers I'd produce throughout, would be my final catharsis and the rat race shall finally be over. So for the sake of an exultant future, I thought maybe I just have to slog for another 6 years and by the mid 20's I'd claim suzerainty over my life. And that's how it all began. 

So the first milestone was standard 12. I took up medicine with mathematics and I wanted to take a shot at both medical and engineering entrance(To hell with logic. If I scored so phenomenally in standard 10, I'm great enough to accomplish anything yo. Hell yeah!). I knew that standard 12 marks won't matter that much later and I just had to nail all those entrance exams. So I made changes to my lifestyle, asked parents to get me into the best coaching, got the best and the bulkiest books from the market, and silently waited for my chance to make a mark and create history. I started on right footing and I fared pretty well among all the other competitors in all those mock tests that were organized every week. There were 100 odd people at my center and one of the most anticipated of all the moments every week was when the results were put up on the notice board. I suddenly rose to fame when I topped the first exam and I was further led to believe I will carve history. But from then on, something happened! 

My ranks just went for a toss and I came to assume a steady stable rank at around the top 10 percent mark. Suddenly, the coaching center had new, and far more consistent toppers, and everyone right from the batch mates to the professors, had someone more profoundly talented and hardworking to adulate and sing encomiums for. I was soon forgotten and I was just another one of those 'okay' and 'decent' performers. I had no idea what was going on and I just went with the flow, doing all I could to at least as much as stay afloat. And before I could know it, the showtime was approaching. And once again there was a redux of what happened two years ago. People became more concerned about my health and well being, and instead of a dozen other interesting things that were going on as the times and the country were changing, I was once again led to believe that all that will matter at the end was how much of a surge I could bring about in my scoring. Results came out and humph! I was branded an average for life, it seemed. 

My board exam score plummeted miserably and it came across as pretty recondite to some. There were all kinds of reasons ascribed to it. Lack of attention, dallying around in extraneous pursuits, overconfidence, and what not. And not even one person could come up with the real reason - that I was blithe and doltish enough to pick up the wrong subjects. I mean for the first time the oddity seemed all too simple, and my not so garish marks were a classic testimony to that. So while people were now getting entranced by the enigma of the upcoming entrance examinations, I could almost forebode a looming crisis over my head. My recent performance was a strong enough indicator to allude what was to follow. And I was prepared for the downfall. 

The results came out and there was melancholy all around as expected. But maybe I was the happiest of the lot. I secured an admit in just a 'decent' enough engineering college, notches below the ones I had once aimed for. I constantly and rather inadvertently came under fire by relatives, neighbors, friends and foes, for not being able to do what I was meant to. People even supplicated for me to go for another attempt. But I was too sure why I was not going for the slugfest and the deluge anymore. I realized I wasn't meant for a lot many things I was lead to believe I was meant for. Even that engineering course was something force fed and garroted because everyone seemed to be saying "Beta engineering me hi scope hai", and so I was left with no other option but to satiate their appetite for quite some time. I knew engineering could once again be the dungeon I always wished to circumvent falling into, but I was willing to give it a try. 

So it went on, week after week, sem after sem, year after year. I couldn't fare as one of those geeky legendary programers you have on all campuses, but I felt fortunate to be exposed to an entire array of topics I seemed to fall for. Right from the basics of computer hardware, to computer and network architecture, to data mining, and finally to artificial intelligence. While I once again knew I'm not meant for making strides in any of those fields, I always found the fundamentals pretty titillating. It suddenly seemed like they're teaching the 'in' things, as opposed to teaching various age old principles, concepts and theorems I may never really use. Engineering gave me an avenue where I witnessed a melange of things that were going on, and it also gave me my own little peephole into what to expect. And while I had stopped chasing those numbers anymore, apparently subdued by the result when I did so for the one last time, I went on to score pretty well, despite knowing now that the marks won't matter much than to make me see through the eligibility criteria of some demanding companies. And as it turned out, I started enjoying studies after a lot of time. Maybe the last time I might have felt that way would've been in standard 5 when the grading system was there and marks based evaluation was not enforced. 

 I took up a job at TCS, and it is a company that literally manumits people at average campuses by recruiting in bulk. So while I knew that this wasn't my calling, I went ahead with MBA prep. I wasn't sure why I wanted to do an MBA but I knew it might once again broaden my horizon after I had closed all doors on myself after taking up medicine plus engineering route quite many years back without having a final aim. There were many deterrents for getting into an ivy league b school. While my standard 10 board exams percentage remained a saving grace when it came to initial academic performance, I would've loved to pawn my standard 12 percentage for any bequest I was likely to get as inheritance. The so called 'realists' had already started suspecting that once again my 'numbers' weren't going to support the case in building a strong profile, further enfeebled by the fact that I didn't go to a top 20 kind of an engineering or commerce college. Whatever it was, I reinforced my faith in the fact that some options might still be there for me to elude. So once again, while everyone talked about numbers -  the entrance percentile and score, 10 and 12th standard marks, the rank of your college, the appraisal ratings at the company, I actually plunged into MBA entrance preparations and while this may sound peculiar, I kind of enjoyed it thoroughly.

Yes, I found it enrapturing because I only focused on specific portions of my choice and ignored all that I found distasteful. I literally skipped many portions which a lot many people considered fundamental because I was going to feel like a spinster if even at that stage of my life I was going to get rattled by not so worthy of my time topics, getting screwed like some concubine. So I took my chances with faith and I did falter on many occasions. But as luck would have it, there are many colleges and there are many gateways of getting in them so when I had my day, I found the entire tide swerved in my favor, seeing that I reached the shore. And I suddenly started seeing life for what it is. 

For as long as I was concerned about numbers, I floundered, like a lumpen who could do not good to himself, let alone anyone else. But on the very day I eschewed the idea of better numbers and tried making sense of what I was studying, trying to breathe what I was reading, and trying to live what I was experiencing, I saw why the education system made sense. It was all clear know. Not everything was meant for anyone and that's where your numbers shall always fail in exhibiting your hidden prowess. Numbers, and final numbers specifically, will always show how good you are at all the things, ignoring the fact that you're not supposed to be good at all the things. Hell no! In fact even the things you're pretty good at, you're only supposed to use a slice of them and succeed. So numbers are just about as insignificant as the ephemeral amount of time for which you retain some recently acquired knowledge for some exam. Actual knowledge, which is really relevant to you as a person with your own character and preferences, is something that numbers alone cannot vouch for. In fact life will give you opportunities to showcase your true talents and perspicacity later on. It surely will. But all your 'numbers' you so vehemently flaunted till now would've left you by now. You can't carry your marksheets to your deathbed, but you're gonna carry only yourself. 

So as I find myself at this juncture when I'm going to step inside the corporate spheres again, I've long abjured the idea of chasing numbers anymore. In fact it is only now that I realize how mistaken I was when I thought that I will have to chase numbers for only as long as I was a student. Once you get ensnared by the idea of chasing numbers, you'd be chasing them your whole life with no respite. Even from hereon I have many more numbers to chase than ever before. My appraisal rating, the hours I put in, the cars and houses I own, the number of digits in my salary figure, the number of people I lead, the number of positions up the corporate hierarchy I am, and what not. But I'm not going to fall for it just as badly as I fell for it exactly 10 yeas ago. It's taken a long, long time for me to get back in that aplomb. Although the first one was fallacious, and this one feels more like any Elysium. People with whom I've discussed this tell me that if you don't get numbers, you don't get the moolah. It's as if the very fecundity of a woman is dependent on how many babies she produces. It's not that way. In fact your potential is dependent upon how strong you are, and not about how strong your numbers have been. Be bold to embrace and endure falling short of numbers. They won't matter a lot in the end. And be graceful and considerate not to fall for the trap of the magniloquence if you scored pretty well. Relish the moment but please don't turn obstinate. Life is much more than just about chasing numbers and it's taken one full decade for me to realize that. Stop chasing numbers in your life, and start chasing life itself. Or it'll run a little too far for you to ever catch up with it.