Musings on a BITSian Life: Epilogue

This post serves an Epilogue for the series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life‘.

There is a time and opportunity cost attached to everything. Everything. This is probably one of the most humbling realizations of adulthood. Its probably why people came up with the proverb: “Youth is Wasted on the Young”. (Not sure why more young people are not doing something to change this, well anyway).

The 20s can be an incredible time of one’s life. Youth has a definition in terms of age. I would like to add to that definition. Youth is when your time belongs to you, that beyond certain basic things, you are answerable/accountable to almost no one. Think of the vast possibilities and freedoms such a state of mind brings. It so happens that in the current setup of our lives, mostly 20s is the age around which people find themselves to be in this state naturally. (Imagine those who never get this chance and those who never realize that they are experiencing it, bah)!

Having some inkling of this, I set out in my 20s with the goal to have a reasonably good idea as to where I stood on the Risk-Endurance graph I describe in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective. Even the dating world has a version of this goal paraphrased in its own language. It goes something like this: “Before an I Love You, there is an I”. Armed with these aphorisms, my 20s were filled with experiments. Filled with questions and zealous attempts to answer them. The world tested me and I tested the world. It was tiring, painful but very, very revealing.

I will go out on a limb and say that close to graduation, take a blank piece of paper. Sketch out the axes of the 2 graphs (1,2) I have described in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective and put a few dots on them (for yourself and the people important to you). You may get a graduation degree at the end of your time at BITS but that little piece of paper will be your own (real) graduation certificate.

In my last few days on BITS campus, I found myself once again at odds with some sections of the administration on a technicality. Most people I knew had said their goodbyes, packed up bags and left. I was determined to find a way out of the technicality however (because the alternative was not acceptable to me). In the searing desert heat of Pilani, I visited my room in the small breaks from that rebellious attempt to empty it out in time for final summer closure. On one of those days, a junior from the Athletics team I had captained a year ago gave me a hand-painted poster with this little couplet from my all time favourite poem:

Lives of great (wo)men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
Seeing, shall take heart again.

My particular circumstances at the time had rendered me pretty lonely and depressed and I was losing sight of the journey. (My favorite poem coming back to me in such an incredible way felt like a sign from the universe). So, I would like to thank her for making me realize that I was leaving footprints in the sands of time and that someone was noticing. 

I have argued at length about the increasing role of specialization in the future of work. And I began this epilogue with how everything has a time and opportunity cost. Given the nature of the competitive field I am in, it would have been far more beneficial professionally for me if I had spent the time instead writing some research paper to get published in a fancy AI/ML conference. That background processor was always running as I churned out some of this. 

However, I wanted to honor the sign the universe sent me on a cruelly hot summer afternoon in Pilani in 2012 and leave honest footprints in the sands of time. Brutally honest ones at that. I hope that this helps some forlorn and shipwrecked soul somewhere, someday, take heart again! 

The Future of Work: An Individual Perspective

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. 

In this piece I suggest a framework to prepare for that future at an individual level, (one I have used at every decision point of my career). I also intend this piece to serve as a final one for my series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life’.

To recap from Future of Work: A Vision

“As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required for this are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.”

The Future of Work: A Vision

To have some clarity on that last bit, I propose that a person should have a reasonably good idea of where they stand on two graphs.

Risk Endurance Profile

In Asian households, there is a misguided refrain oft repeated motivating children to put in grueling efforts for grades/entrance exams to have a shot at an elite education. It goes something to the effect of “Study for 10th grade /national board exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study for 12th grade/SAT exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study engineering/medicine, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Do an MBA, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Get into investment banking or consulting, you can enjoy life later.” Then after a few years: “Get promoted, you can enjoy life later”. This is a version of the work treadmill I have described, for young people. This sentiment and its psychological impact on young people has been captured beautifully in the international hit movie: 3 Idiots.

As I have argued here that this advice has several problems with it but the most important one is that it is outdated and irrelevant. With the highly visible success of technology companies today via stock market, valuations, IPOs, and the buzzwords related to AI being hyped everywhere, newer parents might advise their children to study computer science because that seems to be the future. That would indeed update the advice, however it would still remain mistaken.

Just as an example, the competitive advantages of knowing generic computer science are also thinning away rapidly. It is already advisable to develop expertise in particular branches of computer science or machine learning or combination fields such as robotics, NLP. And that trend is only going to continue. 

The real point is that if you are on a path or a trajectory, moving forward on it will only require you to become more and more of what got you there. Not only will you have to do more of it but you will most likely have to get very good at it. If you have to change yourself too much to get somewhere, its a great indication that the whole destination should be re-evaluated. Because the dissonance between the journey and the self, if it exists, usually only gets worse. As career trajectories become more exponential, winner-takes-most in nature, this question of re-evaluation will become more important for more people.

Therefore when standing at a decision point i.e. choosing a journey and a destination, one must have some understanding of where one stands on this graph. What are the risks of that path and does one have a reserve of endurance to face their downsides? A lot of people know this somewhat intuitively and frame the question in different ways but those questions are essentially finding one’s place in this graph:

Risk Endurance Profile

There are two very important notes to keep in mind during this thought exercise: 1) This assessment can change over time. For example, you may find yourself in possession of more financial resources increasing your appetite for risk or endurance. Similarly your life’s circumstances may change due to external factors making it impossible to take high risks. So very crucially, 2) this assessment is not a judgement. Some egoistic “self-unaware” people would like to think that placing oneself in a low-risk-low-endurance category would be undesirable. However this assessment is not necessarily intrinsic to your character. For example most societies suffer from a systemic lack of imagination about women’s roles in the future of work, education and productivity. There are societies where nobody wants to invest in them (ensuring 0 endurance) and nobody wants to take a bet on them (ensuring 0 risk taking ability). This leads to social systems forcing a certain quadrant on a certain demographic of society. Therefore placing yourself on this quadrant is not so much a judgement but an honest look at where you stand and what may lie ahead. 

Aggressive-Passive-Independent-Conventional

The first graph was mostly about placing oneself on it. I also argue that it is not intrinsic to who you may be as a person. But the next graph may be more so.

No (wo)man is an island. I struggled for a very long time to crystallize the many ways in which you also need to understand and place the people who surround you, a mental model of sorts for people. But then I came across this exceptional essay by Paul Graham on ‘The Four Quadrants of Conformism’ and there was an aha moment. Here is my attempt at a pictorial representation of the quadrants he has laid out. Of course every word of that essay explaining the quadrant is worth a read.

Axes of Conformism

Why is this useful? Sometimes when you are too embedded inside a group of people like high-school friends, college friends or family, it is hard to see the bigger or the real picture. The usual tendency is to consider anyone with a different orientation inferior. Thinking for a few minutes about people surrounding you on these axes might bring reality closer home. 

For example in a previous essay, I have described how groups which don’t have a clear purpose tend to be exceptionally subjective. Groups that don’t have much clarity on why they are together look for artificial reasons to stick together, often fermenting and rotting in each other’s company. Instantaneously becoming more rigid, closer and suspicious of newer arrivals and further entrenching that process. If your bond with someone/something derives strength from stepping on someone else, ironically that entity you collectively despise becomes the most important defining aspect of the relationship. Only groups that have strong clarity on why they are together can also at the same time be agile enough to discover new people.

Which kind of group are you in? Which group of people do you have a problem with? Placing both on a graph can lead to better understanding and better preparation for the future.

I’ll end with two things (relevant mostly for young people). It is remarkable how much our institutions encourage pattern-following and rarely ever provide the tools for pattern discovery (let alone pattern-questioning, maybe the reason we are set up in a race with ourselves for self destruction, hello climate change!).

As I elaborate on this point in the context for college students in this essay, developing a good question and finding the right people to ask it are both incredibly important, yet very hard. But an inexperienced person is in the unique position to seek out many people, study many journeys and observe the outcomes. To separate the traveler from the journey and the destination. To carry out good great pattern discovery.

The worst* kind of young people are people who think an earlier time in history was a better time, who look back at history, convention and tradition and believe that some prior combination of these was better. It means that they have bought into the power systems which have caused the world as it stands today. (You could be a completely ignorantly blissful person and say “so what’s the problem with the world as it stands today”, but I highly doubt such a person would even be reading this right now).

The best kind of old people are people who are excited for the future and wish they could live a little longer because it demonstrates a vision for an improved possibility, likely one that their life’s work has contributed to. You must decide pretty early on which kind of young person and which kind of old person you want to be.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Sahil Shah, my husband, who brought Paul Graham’s essay on conformism to my attention.

If you ever wonder, why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.

*P.S. Thanks to a new trend of hyped up lists of 30-under-30, 40-under-40 entities (people, startups, wannabe twitter celebrities etc.), there is a new contender for the worst category. I do not want to waste too many words on this professional version of attention seeking. Also, I am totally in the market for any comprehensive analysis which could answer questions like: How many startups which showed up in the 30-under-30 category were able to survive 5 years after that. Or if any managed to transition to the 40-under-40 category. Analogous questions for people. Or if the number of twitter followers or facebook fans is actually correlated to any meaningful real life metric such as funding, valuation, revenue etc. Enough words wasted already. Moving on.

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Why Should I Care?

This post is written as the second part of a series of blog posts starting with: “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?”

I’m never one to mince my words so I would like to state it directly. The 1:7 (F:M) ratio is obviously going to create some supply-demand issues. Lets make it more (brutally) clear. There is an oversupply, under-demand of men and overdemand, under-supply of women. This creates some interesting unhealthy power imbalances. Add the cultural baggage of history and society and we are basically set up for failure, welcome Havoc. 

This imbalance starts playing out in the first few weeks itself at BITS Pilani during “interactions”. Every department, club and group, at least on the face of it tries to boost its “gender diversity”. The motivations for this are not very straight forward though as there is another factor at play here. 

On any given day, dating and sex are loaded issues that many different kinds of societies/demographics struggle to handle in any meaningful way. One of the outcomes of this in India is that we never discuss these topics much in schools and homes. A young person has to resort to picking up and deciphering implicit cues from parents, teachers, religion, media (and each other!) to make up their own minds.

Naturally, we also pick up on the hypocritical censorship of sexual relationships. What does that mean? It is apparently ridicule-worthy enough to simply express interest in another person for dating purposes. You have to do it opaquely, through a long drawn flirtatious dance which starts with creating “natural” situations where you are in proximity of the opposite gender. Cue all the undue “attention” flowing from demand to supply during “interactions” and recruitments and everywhere else where it is misplaced.

Mind you, this is just “attention”.

And mind you, this creates a problem for everyone. People who fail at doing it usually find it easier to fall into the “girls-have-it-easy” chant. People who do succeed at it mostly create more problems than make things better for anyone in the long run. And the target of such attention, girls have some amazing reactions to it. These range from distraction, insecurity, overestimating the meaning and importance of it to downright adult versions of princess-prince syndrome. (*1)

So, it usually sucks.

At this point it would be tempting to say “Oh, just chill out, this is the natural cycle of life and mating, why you so serious?”. (Some might even add, “You were a girl right, didn’t you enjoy all the attention?”) 

Well, I wouldn’t be “so serious” and possibly “enjoy” something except that I have been at the receiving end of this unhealthy attention quagmire and I think it has some serious implications.

On Campus

Let me start with a trivial example. In my first year we had this course called ‘Workshop I’, which was an assortment of tasks related to carpentry, CNC machines etc. Even before we started the course, the word on the street was that “girls have it easy” because they can get away with some tasks after throwing around a few smiles. I didn’t really understand this until I actually entered the workshop. Some maintenance dude at the workshop was willing to help out the girls a little more than usual with the carpentry task. Needless to say I didn’t really enjoy this weird interaction with this dude where some girlish behavior was expected from me, failed spectacularly at the task and came out of the whole experience quite unsettled. For the next 4 years I watched batch after batch perpetuating this ‘word on the street’. It still amazes me that for all the IQ and so-called intelligence that BITS is supposed to filter for, not one, let me repeat that, not a single male peer in my 4 years ever wondered, “Hey Aaksha, did that guy ever creep you out?”. Not one guy considered the possibility that this throwing-around-a-smile business could have been unwanted and creepy for the girl.

In the larger scheme of things (i.e. even outside the BITSian context), it still amazes me to this day how easily people accept this narrative. That it is the onus on the girl to be attractive. And that if she is receiving a perceived freebie, she should be both morally responsible and at fault for it.

The media discourse and social media echo chambers’ coverage of sexual assault allegations, lawsuits, divorce settlements etc. may have us believe that the public sympathizes with the woman. However, with the exception of ‘extreme’ cases, the discourse in our homes, schools, temples, and other cultural spaces of society i.e. when no one is looking, is very different. I could write another 1000 words on navigating this bullshit but I will keep that for another day. I do not want to digress.

Coming back, this will play out subtly in most aspects of BITSian life. As I have already written a bit about how to navigate the web of departments and clubs in Extracurricular:
Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

The higher the subjectivity, the more chance that you will be able to recruit and are being recruited for something other than your abilities or passion. Some will do it to create the aforementioned natural proximity. And further, some others will have the audacity to call it “lowering-the-bar”(*2). It is tempting to argue that all of this is inconsequential but this kind of behavior has long term repercussions. 

In my final year, two aspiring BITSian male comedians created a web series of satirical videos on the BITSian life. One such video depicts a placement (job) interview. A guy goes in for a coding interview. He is asked several programming questions. Next, a well-dressed petite girl goes in. The male interviewer starts smiling, tries to make small talk, asks her about her hobbies, likes and dislikes. At the end of the day placement results reveal that it was the girl who got the job, not the guy. The video implies that it was enough for the girl to be cute to get the job.

The one person the video, the camera angle and dialogs don’t focus on is the interviewer. What exactly was the interviewer’s moral standing when he did a professional “favor” for a young woman to curry a potential sexual return in the future. How come this whole incident is interpreted less often as “whats-up-with-desperate guys” and more often as “girls-have-it-easy”?

You see, because this symbolic interviewer was at some point a student like you and me. Whose behavior was not even worth a little bit of ridicule and considered normal even after going through several years of so called ‘education’.

It is easy to project one’s sexual frustrations on the other gender but the seeds for why you find yourself in this situation were sown by many who came before you, much before you.

The Timelessness of Incorrigibility

Here’s a series of mental animations that I noticed started playing out in my mind every time I met a young closeted male chauvinist and was expected to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Their hair became whiter, a few wrinkles and a paunch started to emerge. They started resembling some of the older men I have met who have expected me to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Similarly when I was standing in the company of these older men, another set of mental animations played out. They acquired darker hair, became slimmer, leaner, plump cheeks, healthy skin with jovial faces. I imagined what “jokes” that older man might have shared with his friends when he was younger. The sexism that years of life experiences had augmented/reinforced to culminate in the exact sexist statements I had the misfortune of listening to. I wonder what opinions the younger man might share with his colleagues in the future unchanged by his life’s successes and blows when he is older. 

Because you see, ultimately it is the same kind of incorrigible person, unable to think outside the convention of his/her times. In the past it was the same person who told your mother that she belonged to the kitchen and exists primarily for child-bearing. In the future it will be the same kind of person who will tell your daughter that she can’t do X because she is a girl. Substitute X with any number of things needed for her self actualization.

Locker room Talk”

If the situation wasn’t so dire, I would laugh at the inability of young men to see how much they are losing out because of patriarchy . If you don’t have enough options to date and you are doing stupid things because of that, its not because girls didn’t make it to your schools and within your “natural proximity”. Its because a generation of men and women before you didn’t let their daughters, wives and sisters make it to your school. I personally don’t enjoy crass simplifications of social issues but if Facebook, Sacred Games, GoT etc. have taught me anything, it is this: provocation apparently works. Instead of objectifying and making fun of girls’ body parts in the proverbial locker room talk, here’s a version of the locker room talk that would be more appropriate for our realities:

Khud toh tharki line marta phirta tha, abhi social media par ‘rational arguments’ deneka hai usko against ‘feminazis’
Baap dada, 18 main shaadi karaadi maa ki, padhaya bhi nahi, head of the family samajhtein hai apne aap ko
Haan bey, meri behen ko toh bachpan main hi bol diya, 22 ke baad idhar se kat lena
Haan yaar meri dadi ne jo meri maa ka tel nikala hai, woh saala cricket match dekhne main busy rehta tha
Kya kanjus tha be, ek plate bhi idhar se udhar rakha nahi kabhi, aur maa ko bolta hai, roti-kapda-makaan dene ke liye, meri puja kar
Mereko toh bada kiya nahi, upar se bola, mera naam laga naam ke peeche

Pardon my fantasy flight here, I got a little carried away. But hey, isn’t that the excuse thrown about for locker room talk, boys-will-be-boys and actions of mobs when they come together? I’d like to emphasize, I don’t derive any pleasure whatsoever from this locker room talk but I do want to highlight something. You see, you may be feeling like shutting me down which many peers have done for me on online forums. But before shutting me down, could you spend a moment thinking back to how many times have you stopped that friend who was willing to do anything for a girl, like anything to get into her pants and enlightened him on his debauchery. How many times have you shut down a friend indulging in Trump-esque-grab-em-by-the-pussy locker room talk vs. shut down a female friend who just couldn’t be ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ when expressing her frustrations with her life experiences, with the same ferocity and derision.

You may have ‘schooled’ a female in real life or on social media , and got a million likes from your male friends, giving you the delusion that ‘Oh see, I am so right, I know how to think straight, that other female is just a feminazi who fails to see the big picture and can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality’. Because while you may blame a so called feminazi who can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality, you might just be displaying ‘I-am-too-entitled’ mentality.

It is going to be exhausting to have any kind of rational perspective on this issue because of the attention deficit staring in your face and playing out everyday in your life. Remember that exhaustion. As I described in “Where are they?” This is the legacy we have been given, the baggage passed onto us by older dysfunctional systems.

The Weight of History

When you finally realize the weight of history in front of your eyes, messing with your sexual cravings, that the complicated, twisted gender imbalances in society are very much your problem, and that most likely you are going to be a part of the problem and not the solution, unless you have any capacity for courage and independence of thought (left after an education system that actively attempts to thwart both), you will feel helpless. In my experience, it is one of the hardest, most exhausting ideas to keep in your head. Most people can’t and won’t. It is simply easier, just like your father and his father and his mother and the ones who came before him to generalize. It is just easier to think to yourself: “Oh this human being is born with a few different body parts, there has to be something intellectually, emotionally, inherently problematic with them. Religion and culture are on my side anyway”. You get an ego bump as a side bonus.

I was sitting in London in my final year of BITS coding away in a friend’s apartment when he balked at his screen. His face spelt horror so I asked him, “whats up?” He managed to mumble something about the Nirbhaya rape case. This rape case caught India’s imagination over the next few days. There were a lot of protests and some soul searching. The national conversation was awash with questions about the physical safety of women. I remember being in one such discussion where a younger male colleague cried out in exasperation, “really is it THAT unsafe for you?” This question took me by surprise and it dawned on me how separated my reality was from the other gender. Things that I could never take for granted like what time to leave a party, how many people were there around me in a room, bus or train or how far I was from a safe space etc. were not even factors for another half of humanity.

Periodically such atrocious incidents capture the national imagination. (They happen far more often though IRL). Most people seem to be confused about why these “random” acts of violence take place. Thank god for the ‘MeToo’ movement which set the record straight a little bit at least. (Yours truly being very much a victim of such an assault). Which is to say that these acts are not really ‘random’. They are very much the outcome of our cultural subjugation of women. We like to sleep at night thinking that we caught the specific perpetrators of these acts and solved the problem somewhat. However clearly the problem is nowhere close to being solved. It allows some people, especially the intellectual and cultural male guardians of our times to set a low bar and avoid the issue of ‘psychological safety’ of women completely. I’ll take a page out of Noam Chomsky’s timeless exposition on ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’: “As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions.”

I would like to end with this. You are not obligated to think about the other gender. You are not obligated to think or care about anybody. (Which way you choose, whether to care or not is going to however determine the quality of your life and future). Still there is one entity in your life that you must think about and for whom I do not believe that I need to make a case(*3). That entity is your mother. Do yourself a favor and run through this thought exercise. Imagine her when she was your age standing at the edge of her youth and prime. What was being told to her? What messages had society given to her about her life and what she should do with it vs. what you have been given? Did she stand a chance at self actualization? How did that shape her choices, life and freedoms (or lack thereof). 

Don’t do it as a favor. Don’t do it for charity. Don’t do it even to be ethical(what does that mean anyway?). Do it because you for better or worse have acquired the label of being ‘intelligent’. Do it for survival. Do it because if you cannot even think from the perspective of your mother, stand in her shoes for a minute, you will not be able to discern how you are yourself being taken for a ride by the educational, financial, religious and media systems surrounding you. Do it to get better at the game of life.

Epilogue

One month into BITS Pilani, I had joined or been recruited to some groups. There was this senior guy in one of these groups who decided that it was completely valid for him to force me to eat from the same plate as him in a group dinner. He sat next to me at the beginning of dinner, a few minutes later slid my plate away as food arrived. And then proceeded to serve himself large helpings of food, presumably for both of us. For sometime he kept asking me to take a bite from this common plate. It took me a while to process what was happening, and at first I was just surprised at the audacity of the whole thing. I started defying the situation by trying to make conversation with other people and ignoring this guy, not having a bite ever throughout the whole episode. As dinner progressed and other people’s jokes and conversations settled down, this guy’s nudges became louder and clearer. My appetite long gone, by now I was frantically running calculations of good ways to quietly slip away from the situation without being noticed. Unfortunately, this was close to the center of the table. This nonsense went on for some more time. Finally, this ordeal of a dinner was over and I walked back to my cycle. And sped off in the opposite direction as soon as everyone was out of sight. 

I was quite disturbed by the situation. To this day I wonder what went on in other people’s minds as they saw this whole thing play out. The questions that raced through my mind were: “Is this the modus operandi here?”, “Why did that guy think he had the right to display such unabashed coercion?”, “Why exactly was I recruited to this group?

After some consideration, I decided that I would let my actions speak for me. I decided that if I overcompensated by focusing on the group’s work over the semester, it would send the right signal and such future advances would be discouraged. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Over the next few months I watched in horror as such advances were attempted at other girls in the group and some even seemed to enjoy it. Meanwhile my own personal journey got harder and harder because a pretty and petite frame such as mine and the cultural stereotype that comes along with it was quite at odds with the goals I had set for myself. As the advances did not stop, I kept becoming sterner, quieter and less open as a person. I put in many sleepless nights working towards the keynote event of this group. After the event we had a review session during which many people doubled down on me criticizing many aspects of my efforts. However some girls who enjoyed the former kind of ‘attention’ continued to be a welcome part of the group and (without ever raising a finger for any stated work goals of the group) accumulated more ‘social capital’ than I ever could have . I can only imagine that many guys in my cohort observed the same thing. In this situation it would be understandable if some of them concluded that ‘girls have it easy’. It is disappointing though that so many of them don’t consider that these situations are not easy for a lot of girls and that these kinds of modus operandi further discourage girls who could break such vicious behavior.

Anyway, personally that review session was the last straw. Something broke inside me and I found it hard to trust most people at BITS Pilani moving forward. It took a lot of effort to get over this with the help of some amazing people (interestingly mostly men) I met later on in life .

I do believe that everyone would have been better off if people could be more straight forward about their intentions and did not have to resort to this kind of bullshit to find dates. And I still wonder what stops the same men from doing the same thing as they step out into real life with people who may someday in the future report to them? (Or does it?). I wonder if the stringent harassment policies that men’s rights activists have such a problem with, have a role to play in stopping such behavior?

Appendix

*1- Of course there is the occasional fairy tale here and there but we’ll leave that under the category of exceptions or good marketing 😛

*2- There is a more problematic context in which this concept exists and I talk about it here.

*3- Because if I have to make a case even for this, I am pretty sure such a reader did not survive this far into the post and/or our basic premises in life are so different that most of what I have said would be lost or futile to that reader’s mind

Worth a read: The Story Behind BITS Pilani’s Girls’ Hostel Curfew Removal

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?

This post is written in continuation of Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics and Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

In “Basics”, I wanted to address one elephant in the room. I call it that because that issue has a lot of bullshit surrounding it. My goal was to take that as a use case and demonstrate the act of building a framework. A framework to arrive at one’s own decision strategy.

I want to address another, larger, more complicated and more important elephant in the room. It is one of gender ratio. The despicable and obstinate gender ratio of 1:7 (F:M) that has persisted over the past decade in (Indian) undergraduate engineering batches (*Data Sources).

This matter is so complicated and by now I have been part of so many painful conversations, arguments that I hear a collective sigh. That is, an imaginary collective sigh echoing through my ears of a group of young people dealing with the gendered legacy passed on to us by the older generations. And there is hardly any acknowledgement of it, leave alone training or emotional tools to deal with it. 

So, one of the most common manifestations of this baggage is the question…

“Where are they?”

A question I hear often stated explicitly or framed implicitly. If I had a dollar for the number of times an older, younger or contemporary male has engaged with me in the following questions, I would be a millionaire:

“If women were as smart as you claim them to be, where are they?”
“Dude, come on, if so many men can crack these competitive exams, and women can’t, there must have to be some kind of deficiency, I mean it’s a pattern right?”
“So I guess we have to lower the bar now for more of them to get here?”

No, no. Don’t get me wrong. Simply asking the question is not wrong. However why and how you ask this question (out loud or in your head) is very important. Firstly, you are neither original for thinking it (in your head). Neither are you a trailblazer for asking it (out loud). You have plenty of company. In history. In government. In education. In laws. Take any aspect of society and you have plenty of company in asking it. So that moment when this question arises in your mind, remember to take a step back and recognize it as a larger echo of our society. This question and that moment is the legacy of our past generations. Remember that.

It is politically incorrect to ask this question but not for reasons that you might think so. Does it offend women? Yeah sure. Does it make you sound like a douche? Yes, maybe, depending on how you frame it. But this is not why it is weird to ask this question. The reason it is weird to ask this question is because up until recently society already had an answer for it. And our current society is designed assuming that that answer was correct. 

What do you mean?

Here are some examples of spectacular female scientists and the sentences that surround the description of their life stories:

Kamala Sohonie : “her application was turned down by the then-Director and Nobel Laureate Prof. C V Raman on the grounds that women were not considered competent enough to pursue research”….“She will not spoil the environment of the lab (she should not be a ‘distraction’ to the male researchers)”… “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn’t admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?”
Lise Meitner : “…women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher education in Vienna…”, “she and Otto Frisch did not share in the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission, which was awarded exclusively to her long-time collaborator Otto Hahn. Several scientists and journalists have called her exclusion ‘unjust’”….”According to the Nobel Prize archive, she was nominated 19 times for Nobel Prize in Chemistry between 1924 and 1947, and 29 times for Nobel Prize in Physics between 1937 and 1965”
Mary Somerville : “I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men”….. “The Morning Post declared in her obituary that ‘Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science”
Nan Laird : “I had to make choices early in my career….My first husband and I separated when I entered graduate school, and, as a single mother, I jealously guarded my time for the sake of my son….I decided to eliminate activities that did not lead to academic publications or teaching success….It was always a surprise to me that many men do socialize at work.”
Henriette von Aigentler: “She was refused permission to audit lectures unofficially.”
James Barry : “Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley and was known as female in childhood. Barry lived as a man in both public and private life, at least in part in order to be accepted as a university student and pursue a career as a surgeon, with Barry’s birth sex only becoming known to the public and to military colleagues after death.”

This is a small sample. You must be thinking, “So what? How does that answer “Where are they?” And why should I care why it is politically incorrect to ask that?”

1 – For most of modern history, Culture, Law and Religion have operated on the underlying idea that women do not possess the cognitive abilities and objectivity for science and engineering. (*2) They form a richly vicious self-sustaining feedback loop augmenting this idea in each other’s spheres. Every time some reform is attempted in one sphere, it is quickly inadequate in the face of feedback forces from other spheres.

For a moment imagine if we did not have the artificial barriers that women have faced over several centuries. We would today be talking of Noetherian Mechanics, Somervillean distributions or Hypatia’s Theorems. Young boys and girls like you and me would not be raised with faulty notions and unnecessary damaging doubts regarding one half of human species’ capability to do something.

Thanks to the insurmountable battles fought by a few men and women over the past decades to change the narrative, and painstaking research by psychologists, we have hardcore evidence that this underlying notion is nonsense. However large sections of humanity spanning multiple age, income and education brackets have completely missed the memo. 

If an alien read Indian memes,“its-just-a-joke” conversations that do the rounds on WhatsApp, or listened extensively to the conversations of husbands and young men over the past 100 years (if not more), it would seem that taking cheap digs at the feminine self esteem was the prevalent national sport, not cricket. “women can’t drive”, “wives are a nag”, “too emotional”, “too talkative” are several manifestations of the same thing, cheap digs at the feminine self esteem. In Silicon Valley this ugly zeitgeist surfaces its head regularly, sometimes by way of so-called “logical”, “rational” manifestos like these.

Any reasonably emancipated woman with some capacity of independent thought knows that this idea is nonsense. However convention is heavily armed against her. You, the unsuspecting young person are standing in the middle. This is why it is politically incorrect to ask this question. Convention is so sure about its wrong answer that it has religious laws and cultural norms going back 100s of years for backup in the face of any doubt. However, walk up to a young girl who’s spirit has not yet been thwarted or an older woman who survived society’s assault on her self esteem and you will find an attempt at compensating for this deficit.

Still doesn’t answer ‘where are they’?

The Funnel

2 – There is this concept of joint probability. While it is much easier to model probabilities of binary events like admissions conditioned on single factors, in reality it is a multi-variate problem. For an event to actually happen in real life, its joint probability has to multiply out in its favor. 

Why is this relevant?”

Just as an example, math performance on national tests have demonstrated no gender disparities in many countries. However this does not necessarily translate into better female representation in engineering or sciences. Because this is just one factor. For a girl to survive the journey to becoming a scientist/engineer (or anything meaningful in any career/endeavor), many probabilities have to work out in her favor to make it there. Here’s an example funnel:

The Funnel
The Funnel

In my personal experience I have met many men who have expressed outright disbelief that young girls still face such barriers. However hard it is to accept it, the reality is sadly just that. While growing up I heard some form of all of it. These are the exact verbatim sentences I have heard, no matter how well I did at school or may do in life:
~~
“Ab khana banana sikhado, ladkiyon ki jagah kitchen main hi hai” / “High time she learnt cooking, girls belong to the kitchen”
“Beta badhai ho 1st aane ke liye…Par ghar ka kaam to tumhe hi sambhalna padega” / “Congratulations dear on topping your school, but you still have to take responsibility of the house”
“Engineer kyun banna hai? Ladkiyan toh doctor banti hain” / Why do you want to become an engineer? Girls usually become doctors.”
“Shaadi ke baad sheher aur job toh change tumhe hi karne padenge” / “Well, after marriage you will have to be the one to move cities and change jobs”
“Aap beti ko US bhej rahe hain? Log toh bete ki padhai par itna kharcha karte hain.”/ “You are sending your daughter to the US? People generally spend that much only for a son’s education.”(*3)
~~
“There needs to be a shift in how families and female students think about professional choices for women. A large percentage of women decide not to join IITs despite having qualified the exam—their decision to opt out is a huge loss to the institutions and to the society at large,” said Ruchira Shukla, regional lead, South Asia, venture capital-International Finance Corporation. “This is often driven by the misconception that engineering is not an ideal profession for women.” (2018) (*4)
“Every year, many highly talented women just miss a seat at the IITs. The main reason is societal biases that place geographical constraints on women and deny them equal access to preparation for the highly competitive JEE (Advanced) entrance exam,” said Timothy A Gonsalves, director, IIT Mandi. (2018) (*4)


Just in the case of Computer Science, the scenario is even more special (worse):

Source (worth a read): https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding


~~

If you happened to click on the wikipedia links I listed above of a few women in history, you may have noticed that they all have one thing in common. All of those women jumped unimaginable barriers, were able to pursue their passions and survived censorship in history only because atleast once in their lives they met or had a phenomenally open-minded backer. In some cases it was a male in the form of a father or husband. In some cases it was an extraordinarily protective & supportive maternal family. And in the last case, the person decided to live out her adult life as a male, seeing no other way to match her potential with her reality.

Next, I did not quote some of those verbatim sentences that followed me around while growing up to give an excuse. No, no, they never deterred me, not even for a moment. But this was only because I also have extraordinarily open-minded and exceptionally supportive and protective parents. It was them who put in the back breaking hard work to build walls that protected me from bullshit till I turned old enough to not let it break me. 

Everyone does not have this. 

I can only imagine that if you don’t have some counter balancing forces for this perennial undermining of your self-esteem, you would have to break and give in at some point. It is not an excuse for not doing something but it is also a reality that countless generations of women have faced and continue to face.

What you see at BITS is a ratio that is the outcome of many such funnels. Of many joint probability chains that never made it.  
There is a significant difference in the joint probability distribution for men and women. This is hard to see, especially in the backdrop of social media echo chambers, “apparent” focus on feminism and the “attention” women will get on campus. 

However it is these multivariate factors which are going to play out over the next few years in front of you. They have played out already to some extent as you stand at the gates of BITS Pilani. But its about to get “better” (by which I mean worse). This is what I want to talk about next. The Havoc. That lays ahead of you.

Epilogue

There is a 3rd reason it is politically incorrect to ask “Where are they?”. This is when you are not really asking a question but looking around for confirmation of your biases, and for company in your prejudice. The kind of thing people do with Facebook statuses and social media in general, seeking out their own echo chamber. It is not very hard to discern this intention. Because in the face of mounting evidence or information which fails to satisfy the bias, such people get super personal, super fast. They already have Convention to fall back on. In case a complete picture or more understanding or more nuance offers a good fight, the next best thing is a personal attack. “Who does she think she is?”, “I will prove to her via ostracism how unpopular and wrong she is”, “I met this one other girl in my life who fit my bias and that is proof enough that I am right and generations of women are wrong”. Again you are not alone. Look at the world around you. We live in a broken world because many so-called “great” men before you have done the same. It is easy, comfortable and you have plenty of company. I want to explore the implications of this so-called comfort, not for the world (who cares dude :P) but for You, in the coming sections: Why Should I Care? and What are the Odds?

I have also spent some time in this piece entertaining a hypothesis, the underlying notion that women lack some cognitive abilities. And also, that we live in such a godforsaken world that we require proof to dispel these ideas. While I was growing up, this idea seemed so illogical and preposterous to me that I could not imagine that someone would actually believe it. However, its repercussions had started affecting my life as early as a teenager. I was “that nerdy girl” Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book “Lean In”. I was bossy, headstrong and either too quiet or too outspoken. It took me many years to put my life experiences as a young girl in perspective. 

Still, before entering BITS I naively assumed that the basic IQ filter applied via competitive exams would ensure some rationality and decency about gender equality. In reality though, it was but a stepping stone in a spectacular, repeated and successive shattering of my assumptions and comfort zones.

And I do want to cite 2 most poignant reminders of this ugly zeitgeist, which I faced very recently. One was where a fellow male student reminded me in a private discussion that women must ultimately learn to bend and bow in front of him because that is their place in life. This person had the highest imaginable honor you can think of in Indian competitive exams, went through years of engineering studies at the most elite institutions in India and will possibly design some of the more influential AI systems in the future.

And the 2nd was when a male peer at one of my workplaces informed me that the only way we could fix the representation of women in tech was by “lowering the bar”. This is another one of those “politically incorrect” concepts that I want to talk about because in my opinion it played a major role in the gendered experience of my undergraduate years. And contributed much to the Havoc that I want to talk about.

Appendix

(*Data Sources- I have been searching around for hard numbers for this infamous gender ratio and phenomenon that gets quoted often in media and otherwise. I would like to acknowledge this excellent set of data collected by Nirant Kasliwal. Some gender ratios for colleges other than BITS were quoted in this article by ET. PSA: I am totally in the market for more such objective pieces of data collection on other institutes across the country. Please let me know if you have similar numbers on institutions you attended and I would love to create a publicly available dataset out of them. Thanks!)

*2- This may come as a shock to some of you. Another name for this shock is acquiring historic perspective on modern inequalities and problems.

*3- Of course I wish I could show up in an invisibility cloak and capture such people’s expressions when my parents informed them that I was going to study on full scholarship.

*4- https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/education/to-improve-gender-ratio-at-iits-start-at-school-level/articleshow/63089610.cms

Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

This post is written as a supplement to “Basics” focusing on the time management aspects of student life. Somewhere in the space of the first few weeks at BITS Pilani, one goes through the semi-formal process of “Interactions”. It is an interesting melting pot where ideally you meet a wide variety of individuals. Variety in age, interests, ideology, background (economic strata, upbringing) etc. etc. It is actually a great time to meet new people because this period does not come around again for the rest of the year (and possibly, for the next 4 years).

“Interactions” for most part are a less objective (sometimes just plain dumber) version of campus “Placements” which you might choose to go through towards the end of your BITSian time.

Humor me for a bit here. Interactions or Placements both lie someplace on the spectrum of forms of “Vetting”. Why would you need to “vet” someone?

  • Check skills to satisfy a need.
  • Check for team/group “fit”

Figure 4: Vetting Process

Figure 5: And the lack of it.

The quality of the vetting process is directly proportional to how clearly and specifically the need is defined (Figure 4). 

As the need becomes less defined or less of a consequence, subjectivity takes over and the process suffers. Sometimes the subjectivity is channelized into finding team fit. Leading to the common phenomenon, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

Of course there are some “interactions” which don’t have any of the goals laid out above (Figure 5). In line with the direct proportion relation, they are purely subjective and the only needs being satisfied is some form of personal agenda (ego massage etc.).

In any case, this is not meant to be an in-depth review of the complicated social phenomenon by which people who have come before, handle people who come later (“ragging”, “hazing” etc. also falling into this category).

However, it is to highlight the weakness of the nascent impressions that will be formed about you and might follow you around for a while. These impressions will be extrapolated to project how “interesting” it might be to have you around in a club/group/department. Just as the first impression of your skills will be extrapolated to project how well you might fit to a job at the time of placements.

It is not that important what others make of you. First impressions can be changed (whether good or bad) and hopefully become irrelevant as you realize your priorities over the course of a BITSian life (and life in general). But it is very important what you make of it in terms of understanding your environment and what kind of “management” sits on top of you. It is a survey of the land and the best chance to do it.

Most people who don’t treat their time with care are unlikely to extend that care for yours. The thing that you as an individual cannot solve is bringing accountability to others for your time. Because this problem is bigger than you and BITS Pilani. It is a cultural and societal issue which manifests itself in many forms like the success of Bollywood, popularity of Facebook or the many failures of our education system, etc. (In this scenario, the only way to handle this is to practice a hard cutoff, which is what I want to come to next).

In my third year in college, I came across a wonderful letter written by Harry R. Lewis, then Dean of Harvard College and an esteemed Computer Scientist, for the fresh(wo)men joining Harvard in 2004. The last 2 pages of this letter are something that I found to be extremely relevant for a BITSian life. I want to quote verbatim, the most salient point of the letter here:

“Don’t try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously. Taking this advice requires classifying extracurricular commitments into “major,” of which you should probably have at most one, and “minor,” which might involve a meeting a week, a few hours of volunteering, or some recreational athletic participation that does more to relieve than to create stress. But if you’re starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn’t accept the lead in the House musical the same term. If you are the go-to person for a weekly publication, you probably shouldn’t also be the manager of a conference that will be bringing five hundred students to campus. There are exceptions to this rule too — some people are exceptionally good managers. But before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments, you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone, either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor. Or if, perhaps, you are trying to avoid studying a subject that no longer interests you.”

I know this to be good great advice because I was definitely one of those people who had signed up for way more than was ideal. With the gift of hindsight (in my third year and now), I wish I had followed this.

Most of rest of what I want to say and have concluded over the years is put together and summarized more eloquently than I can, in the letter above. Verbatim key points of that being:

  • Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking.
    (Something I have tried to elaborate upon in at least one BITSian context in Part1).
  • Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one.
  • Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional.
  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect.
  • Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow!

And so I, end here.

Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics

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.

Question

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).

Namely,

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.

(Answer)

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.

Convention matters

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.

Summary

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“.

Criticism

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.