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.