Hustl Weekly

This is a long read. You have been warned!

I was one of the few fortunate students who understood the teacher’s lesson quicker and had an environment that encouraged obedience to authority and gave me time and space to study. None of it was of my doing. Consequently, I performed reasonably well in my school days. I never missed classes, always finished my homework, often ranked in the top 5 throughout the school. Due to similar reasons and luck, I cleared IIT-JEE. I was celebrated, praised, and was an example to students in my community.

My time in college was altogether a different story. I often missed classes, once recording 40% attendance in a course, missed tutorials, practicals, and roughly every single academic engagement that I could. Unsurprisingly, I was a consistent six-pointer.

People who listen to this often tell me - “Oh, but you were underperforming in one of the top colleges in India.” My question is - “So what?”

Underperforming in any academic situation does not go well. Your opportunities shrink. For example, GPA was the criteria for choosing electives. Our college meant to tell us that if someone was doing well in Metallurgy, they could get more value out of humanities elective than the student who wasn’t doing well in Metallurgy. Ideally, it would be the opposite. Placement is not easy on you either. You get shortlisted by a very few companies. Having worked for more than 12 years now, I know that all that GPA filtering was baseless primarily. The only job I landed out of IIT was because the interviewer gave me a chance despite my low GPA.

In summary, lack of confidence, absence of pride in one’s abilities, unawareness of one’s strengths, lack of mental fortitude has nothing to do with the college or degree program you attend. No wonder that some of the top colleges, including IITs, have high suicide rates.

The way it stands

Recently Netflix published this advertisement. Will you ever see such an advertisement for real? Why not?

The reason is that our system consistently ONLY celebrates students who do well in exams. Exams are standardized tests - a type of test that measures the abilities of millions of students through one format. There is a defined syllabus. If you find yourself on the right side of the mix, you will do well. Or else you will face the ignominy of not scoring well on the exam. Students often live with low scores and the resulting lack of confidence for years after the exam. It is a hurt that many of us still carry around with us.

The Standardized Tests - Mother of all problems

You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration. - Nassim Nicholos Taleb

A standardized test is a one-size-fits-all process that measures a particular type of intelligence. If you don’t do well, it just says that you don’t perform well on that type of test. It says nothing about your overall intelligence and your ability to do well in life (career is a small subset of life).

Standardized tests grossly undermine the fact that all of us have diverse ways of applying our mental faculties. Someone will discover a poem in a situation, someone a story, someone a stand-up comic act, someone will paint a picture, sing a song, create music, write an article, and find the mathematical basis. Is there a way to test all of this through one test? It cannot be.

From day one, when a child steps inside the classroom boundaries, they prepare for standardized testing. If you don’t like the class, you will be disciplined into submission. There is a reason very few students associate school with fun.

Scores in exams are often the blind selection criteria used by schools. For example, all the students who performed well on standardized tests in my school were also dragged into dance, drama, sports, and even “bhajan” singing. The assumption was that if a child is good at taking standardized exams, they will be good everywhere. What is the message going to the other students? If you have low scores, you are just low overall. What is the belief we are creating in young minds?

I suspect the I.Q., SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent...Smart and wise people who score low on IQ tests, or patently intellectually defective ones, like the former U.S. president George W. Bush, who score high on them (130), are testing the test and not the reverse. - Nassim Nicholos Taleb

Think about the test in which Albert Einstein, who is known to be a lousy student, had a low score. Or Gandhiji, who is known to be a mediocre student. Do these scores tell you anything about Gandhiji’s and Einstein’s abilities? These tests tell you more about the people who created these tests, a typical case of Wittgenstein’s Ruler.

What is the way out?

The truth is that you cannot escape standardized testing. College, job, selection, master’s program, career progression are all standardized processes. It is like the air you breathe. It is always around you.

Getting measured and judged repeatedly is torture as a 16-year-old. It is equally wrong when at 30, someone tells you that your score on GMAT is low to get into top programs. I have been there. After facing nine colleges rejections, I reached a phase where I seriously doubted my worth. I came out of that trough with massive support from friends and family. At the same time, I seriously started looking at how we teach our children, what we celebrate and how we celebrate. I discovered that I wasn’t alone, and there were enough people who had already done some fantastic work.

For example, this fantastic blog: IQ is largely is a pseudoscientific swindle. In the words of the author:

There is no significant statistical association between IQ and hard measures such as wealth. Most “achievements” linked to IQ are measured in circular stuff s.a. bureaucratic or academic success, things for test takers and salary earners in structured jobs that resemble the tests. Wealth may not mean success but it is the only “hard” number, not some discrete score of achievements. You can buy food with a $30, not with other “successes” s.a. rank, social prominence, or having had a selfie with the Queen.

I began exploring alternate ways of looking at this mess from within the structure. I discovered that I could be remarkably unaffected by a low score on a test. I learned to untie my happiness, confidence, and creativity from a score in an exam.

The Theme of This Newsletter

I have come to believe that every student deserves an avenue to slowly and steadily discover what they are good at, what they truly enjoy, and how they can contribute to the community. Students like me, who come from small-town or underprivileged backgrounds, often discover this extremely late in life or don’t discover it at all. I want to change that.

I was compelled to write about topics like “How to get into a master’s program?” “How to do well in college abroad?” Although these questions are essential, they grossly underestimate the problem. The problem is not that students cannot answer these questions themselves. The problem is that they are underconfident and unsure. They want someone else to answer these questions for them. Years of working with pre-defined syllabus have left students utterly unprepared for life without a syllabus. They often lack a robust thought process to make decisions, to discover what they truly want in life. They lack the courage to take steps in a direction different from their peers.

There are millions of avenues that talk about exams and interview prep. The challenge is to sit and study if you have the syllabus, exam pattern, and prep material. Food, clothes, and shelter are provided for. What is the difficulty? The fact is that it is not difficult; for many students, it is mind-numbingly dull and purposeless. That is why students do not get scores despite everything at their disposal.

The actual difficulty lies in learning to make decisions, own your choices, accept failures and criticism while taking small risks, understand options, make individual discoveries, and put efforts without company. There is no well-defined syllabus and no standardized exam. That is why very few touch upon these topics.

I am not asking you to drop out of college, bunk your exam, or do anything revolutionary. I haven’t done that either. You must play the game. However, you can spend time developing a thought process about the alternate approach. You can explore options/ways that can help you become confident in your abilities. You can find and follow people around the world who are doing it.

Through this newsletter, I want to share content that can provide you a fresh perspective to think and act a little differently every day.

My invitation is simple: If this resonates, subscribe! Please share it. Engage with comments and questions.

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