I wanted to keep this short and sweet. I couldn’t.
Over the past few years, I have received many questions from BITSian juniors about career, applications, relationships etc. The questions are very specific but I see an underlying pattern that doesn’t have much to do with the exact professional choice but which shares something more common and abstract.
Also, I had many burning questions when I was younger and I saw batch after batch coming in with the same fire and same confusions. Here is me looking back, ‘thinking’ about the experiences I know of and trying to make sense of it in the context of these patterns and questions. Hoping that all of this will be of use to some motley soul.
When you think too much, you invariably end up giving yourself a hard time. It’s the nature of Thinking. Anyone who is too happy/proud with themselves or the world around them has likely spent little time in this exercise, whatever their IQ and (past, present, future) achievements may have been.
I write this because I want to address all those daring souls who actually ‘thought’ during their college life. I write this to ease their burdens a little bit. I write this to tell them they are not and have not been alone.
Let’s get the basics out of the way.
First things first, something that everyone wants to know indirectly or directly. Some people are ‘too cool’ to acknowledge this. (I will address that kind of self-delusion shortly).
‘To GPA or not to GPA, that is the question’
GPA is an interesting attempt to summarize a young person’s experience with a floating point number of 2 digit precision.
If you have had the good fortune of studying information theory, you would know that a single signal that is attempting to encode information about something as complicated as life experience, is likely to be extremely noisy. (It is then natural that most higher education adcoms across the world look for more signals, IIMs => high school grades, US univ => recommendation letters etc. etc.) So, I am not sure why people in general are so quick to judge each other based on GPA inside and outside of college.
Admission committees are working on a large scale and so they have systemic limitations to how effectively they can get a sense of a person’s experience. However, I see no reason why that same principle should carry over in one’s personal life where you are operating at a much smaller scale and can find out much more about a person apart from their GPA to truly get a sense of who they are. I would, at best, call the former kind of decision making stupid.
Most people try to place other people on this visualization of the scale of various approaches to GPA:
Figure 1: Scale
I would like to twist this a little bit because the scale might as well look like:
Figure 2: Scale
Let me talk about the two seeming ‘extremes’ of this scale.
On the one ‘end’ are people who decide to live out their ‘Americanized’ high school fantasies during college. Because who are we kidding. It is likely that you have jumped ahead in a huge rat race to get to BITS Pilani. It is likely that you have made the rounds of many coaching centre sweat shops (*1) to get here and just getting here was so mentally/emotionally/undesirably exhausting that you decide to put on a Bob Marley’s song, smoke your lungs, stomach and brains out, and look weirdly, condescendingly on anyone who still has some fuel left in them to try more.
On the (seemingly) other end are people so in love with GPA that it is the main thing that gives meaning to their lives. Its jumping from one rat race into another. And doing it because its a clear path to prestige in this kind of setting.
Many people exist in between. People who don’t care and still get a good GPA. People who care and still don’t get a good GPA. Sincere people with low GPA, smart people with low GPA, insincere people with high GPA and the list goes on.
The point is that it’s a pretty poor metric to judge someone or yourself. Blind maximization of this metric or giving up and ignoring it in all its complexity, both sound like sub-optimal strategies for your college career. Hence, while the 2 ends of the scale look at each other with much condescension and strangeness, they are actually very similar in their lack of thought about it.
Coursework, the origin of GPA, is widely known to be outdated and behind its time in most colleges (in India). I am not sure why there is no comprehensive/effective review process for the curriculum that we are being taught and its quality of instruction. There seems to be no GPA equivalent for the GPA issuers. Moreover, with the availability of online courses, I don’t see the need to force such a large group of young people through poor teaching methods.
I don’t necessarily mean this as a personal insult to anyone because there are many complicated factors that go behind not having good faculty to teach in our country. The vicious cycle that ensues can be broken by technological innovation. Namely MOOCs and the larger internet sphere.
In my BITSian life, I found myself increasingly agitated at the prospect of being “forced” through an examination system for an outdated curriculum when it was so painfully obvious (to me atleast) that it had little real world value. I only mention “examination” because lectures/ instruction methods and all that other stuff, I don’t even want to go there.
Also, and again, I only mention “examination” because at the end of the day, that is what it is. A long drawn branding exercise, finding different (and yet lacking) ways to measure you and in the end stick a brand on you. (Some people actually relish this so much that they go onto do more of it, people of the em-bee-aayyy persuasion :P). In my career I have benefited greatly from being proactive about finding out what was important to learn and learning that from excellent books, MOOCs, peers and anyone who had something valuable to add to my perspective.
I think the world would be a better place, if some education institutions (global and otherwise)recognized that they are actually glorified certification/placement centres. And stop pretending that there is real knowledge/training going on there. Let the good teachers rise, get more credit and decision power while other (sometimes downright evil) “instructors” be prevented from wasting everyone’s time, money and energy. I did not appreciate this enough when I was at BITS but having an operational, honest system for grades, examinations etc. is also a relative luxury from many perspectives. If institutions want so much credit, at least let them have it for the right reasons.
BITS alumni are doing well but I think the system hides behind the law of large numbers. The sheer size of the youth of our country and a brutal selection process results in some people doing well because things lined up for them, or because of putting smart young people in close proximity to each other etc. How much of that happened because of, or to be more accurate, despite the current system is the real question.
Now I do think that armchair critics have a special place reserved in metaphorical hell and whatever “judgement” may be in store for me, I do not want to join that group. So now that our wonderful respectable honorable older generation has decided to subject us to this ill-designed objective, what do we about it?
Courses are a little bit like a buffet meal. Just as you are not required to (/should not) eat everything that is served in a buffet on a platter, similarly not every course is automatically worth your time. What is worth spending time on? This is the real question. The only one that will really ultimately matter.
GPA is a number. Treat it like one. The system designed it to apply a few rules on you, so you of course decide your rules for it. What is worth spending time on and how much of a GPA do you need to negotiate from your BITSian constraints to get there? That is the question.
And its answer is usually neither easy nor obvious.
No point in being a 9 pointer and wasting precious time of your life if that is not going to help you negotiate anything that you value. And worse, leave you with little time to think about what you might want to value.
No point in pretending to be a “cool” 6 pointer when you have a business set up by your “baap” to keep you busy for the rest of your life after college (yes bro, that pretense aint working :P).
You are not required to have this answer at the start, but whether you work towards it or not is pretty much going to decide your future.
We have talked a bit about the question part. Lets talk a bit about the advice part. Most advice or responses to your questions may fall in some leaf node of the tree in the following figure:
Figure 3: Advice Categories
Lets walk through this tree a bit.
Doesn’t matter-> Current Older Student
This answer usually says more about the Current Student than anything about the answer you might be looking for. The person may fall on one end of the scale in Figure 2. The other reason could be the existence of a hidden agenda. A hidden agenda to recruit you to some purpose of their own, e.g. “Department” work, “hangout with me/my group” etc. I usually took a figurative run in the opposite direction, when I met such people. Not only were they not helpful, their advice was potentially detrimental.
Doesn’t matter -> Alumni
I have found some version of this advice repeated by some alumni. The “sab-kuch-moh-maya-hai” types of advice. I think it is a convenient stand to take after one has already benefited from one’s struggles and labour. It’s a borderline taunt, “Hey, you know that number you are obsessing over, or that interview you are preparing for, or that project you are sweating over, and twisting your panties over, really, all that stuff doesn’t matter.” “Great! gee, thanks! That was so helpful (and btw, not hypocritical at all :P).”
This kind of advice could come from people who either have no idea how they got wherever/whatever they got or don’t want to shed light on it. Or it could come from someone who has regrets about how they spent their time in college. Unless they outline their learnings from that regret, hopefully this post will prevent you from being in that position (:D). In any case, not helpful and hence not worth your time.
This kind of advice may come from a person who falls on one end of the scale in Figure 2. If it is not backed by any kind of deeper analysis as to why GPA or analogous conventions are worth it other than that following convention is just easier, I think this should be borderline redundant/outdated information.
Depends -> No Nuance
If this is followed with no nuance, then either you are being dismissed nicely or they are out of time/energy/ways to articulate what they want to.
A lot of advice falls into some of the above categories.
Depends -> Nuance
There is a small subset of people who might say ‘It Depends’ but follow up it with a perspective/summary of what they did and how it did or did not help them. This nuance with at least a tiny bit of curiosity for where you want to go, and how their experience might be useful to you is the real deal.
I have received a lot of advice in my life that wasn’t worth it. But occasionally and very rarely, I did strike gold too. It was the people who gave me nuanced advice, tried to understand what I was asking. And then, connected me to people whose experience could better answer it. This has made most of the difference.
It is important to formulate a good question. It is important to select carefully the people you will ask it to. Both require work.
It is unlikely that a person who hasn’t been curious in their life about the “buffet” they are being served will be able to help you with these questions. Personally, these are the kind of people who amaze me the most. People who have rarely thought about what they might want to make of themselves if they weren’t given a “buffet”, measuring stick and a prestige obstacle race.
A crude (yet personally effective) thumb rule has been: if a person is still worried about their grade in meaningless courses towards the end of their BITSian career, it is a good indication that they have learnt nothing from their time here and have little insight into how to proactively shape it outside of BITS.
Also, IQ provides a big momentum to some people early on in their lives. And that momentum lasts for a while. This does not necessarily mean that they have spent time evaluating how they will design their future and are worth taking advice from. I have covered this in its abstraction in an earlier post: “The Contrarian Question“.
One of the most interesting criticisms I have received for the ideas I have put forth here are that everyone cannot afford or handle clarity. E.g. if you need to be tied to maximizing your GPA for ‘Merit-cum-Need’ scholarships, how does it help to realize your lack of freedom?
In a larger sense, how is it a good thing to realize the external limitations to your dreams/desires?
I guess it is true that clarity is not always pleasant. At first. But clarity is quite liberating eventually because I do believe that there is some value in understanding how much of your choices are a product of your circumstances and how much of it is actually you. That kind of understanding may clear the path for better life choices and lead to more sustainable/meaningful happiness or outcomes.
History may not be on my side. Because this small question of clarity is actually analogous to the larger question of understanding the reality of your place in the world. Which can be a very harsh truth. Most historians, philosophers have cited that inability as the major reason behind Religion’s success.
Currently I take side with hard earned clarity. It may be because of my current phase/state in life. Maybe I will arrive at a different conclusion a few years down the line. If and when that does happen, I will reach out with an update. By different I mean that maybe I will develop more appreciation or acceptance for how much someone may want/need to live in denial.
But for now, this is what it is.
(*1) – which is not a reflection on anyone but the dilapidated education set up of our country.