Wednesday, March 5, 2008

You don't HAVE to be first!

My mother has been a bit of an overachiever all her life. Somehow, she passed it on to me.

Initially, I was a fairly dumb and happy child. I didn't have a clue of what was going on around me. I didn't care. I always did my own thing, and was very creative, always leading my younger cousins and siblings in creating plays, songs, games, and all sorts of general childhood fun and nonsense.

It came as a surprise to me when my best pal, Richa, suggested to me way back in class 9 that I could actually study before an exam. It was a real revelation, which gives you an idea of how dumb I was - I always thought that everyone only went to class and then went to exams. It had not occured to me that people actually studied - memorized - crammed right before an exam.

This simple idea changed the course of my life. Before I did this, I was always an average 70%-er, and my mother always wanted me to do better. I am pretty sure she had also advised me to study, but coming from her, it was easy to write off as a strange adult quirk. Who could possibly study after school, when there was so much to be done - bicycles to be ridden - badminton to be played - practical jokes to be pulled on our poor old hapless maid Teeja - and many other daily adventures to be embarked upon?

Apparently, me. Because after my conversation with my best friend, I started to study. And read the subject material. Some of the stuff looked interesting. Other parts didn't. It didn't matter. I had a sharp memory. I remembered everything. What was tough to retain, I read over and over.

As a result of this, I moved straight up from an average nowhere to top of my class. And upset quite a few people who were always competing to be first. It was rather amusing to see how indignant they were, that the irresponsible class clown was suddenly topping. They assumed it was a mistake.

The mistake was repeated over and over until the time I left school. Suddenly, it had begun to matter how well I did academically. I wanted to top and always did. I wanted to beat the others who thought I wasn't capable of it,. I took special pleasure in making it look easy. Term after term, I came out at or near the very top. Suddenly, my earlier teachers who were always punishing me for some reason or the other, and generally making my life miserable, all claimed they always knew I had it in me. I think a couple of my most hated teachers took credit for reforming me.

It was quite a decent balancing act. I continued to clown around in class, and had loads of fun in school. I liked writing and was the editor of the school magazine. I was in the music group, playing guitar and singing, alongside Richa. I was on the basketball team. But before exam time, I did get serious. I crammed. The Board years were quite nightmarish. And tension filled. But I did pretty well. In fact, I left my school as the topper in the Commerce field. And was awarded for being the best all-rounder.

I moved on to what is considered the best commerce college in the country. And then to one of the finest management institutes in the country. But with the passage of time, it wasn't so easy to do the balancing act. Doing well academically became the obsession. In college, I still managed to play some basketball and music. But by the time I was doing my MBA, it all became about academics.

It became a rarer and rarer event to go to the basketball court. I hardly touched my guitar anymore. I didn't participate in any extra curricular activities. I didn't take particularly good care of my health - I would survive on potato chips and cheese. I was as skinny as a stick. It didn't matter much. I entered my institute amongst the top twenty; and when I left, I was ranked in the top ten. I had won a scholarship that paid the entire fees for two years. And I left to join a top-ranking FMCG company.

You may have noticed that the word 'Top' figures a lot of times in this post. It has figured a lot of times in my life. But it has come at a definite cost. My early twenties have passed in a blur of hard work, result-orientation, and competition.

I wouldn't like to make that mistake with the rest of my life.

The fact of the matter is that all this while, I never really thought about what it is that I would like to do. I just pretty much always did what I was expected to do. Or what the others were doing. I couldn't quite figure out what I would enjoy doing for a living. My dream was always short-sighted. It was to crack the next exam, the next interview. There wasn't ever a long term plan or perspective.

Today, I am very happy to have a career. And my academic background has played no small part in getting me to where I am. Everything about our lifestyle, every comfort - all of it is due to the fact that we both earn a good living. And that is very important. But it is not everything.

I have always wanted to do something creative; something meaningful. Something related to writing or music, even indirectly. It continues to be a dream. And with the passage of time, a fuzzier and less achievable dream. It is becoming more and more difficult to imagine ever breaking away from my current path.

The point is - I think I would just have been better off if I had taken myself more lightly a few years ago. I could have still done decently in school; but maybe I would have pursued my interests more; maybe I would have considered a few lower paying but more creative fields. In fact, maybe if I hadn't done that well, I would have been forced to try harder to figure myself, my areas of interest and my dreams out. It is, of course, possible that I would have been struggling too hard to make a living, and therefore, unable to pursue those dreams anyway - but I suspect that reality would have lain somewhere in between.

These last few months have helped put a lot of things in perspective for me. I am still very grateful for my education and everything that followed because of it. But I recognize that I overdid it, and with time, lost out some great hobbies, and more importantly - some great times - some great years that are never going to come back. And ultimately; I am no closer today to my dreams or goals than I was ten years ago - simply because I still don't quite know what they are.

However, I am very happy in this moment - and it's thanks to the perspective that becoming a mom has given me. Because I have finally come to realize that nothing gives me more joy than being with my family. It has taken me some time to understand that these relationships are what matter most in the end. That ultimately, it's about people. I've got back in touch with a lot of my old friends, too, those who I didn't bother to call because I was too busy studying or working. Some of them still don't call back because they are too busy at work now. It doesn't matter. They'll come around. (This very drop in a highly inflated ego is something that is a nice by-product of motherhood too - although it is work in progress and I am still quite a fathead sometimes)

I look forward to becoming a far more well-rounded person again. And to sincerely try and enjoy whatever I am doing- whether at work or at play.

And for Peanut, to ensure that she gets a good education, of course; but more importantly, to help her become a confident person. And if she has to choose between being a well-balanced, decent student who knows how to have fun OR someone who is brilliant at academics and focussed solely on topping and beating others her entire academic life; I just want to be able to encourage her to be the former - and sincerely mean it.

(I have written this post because of a lot of debate related to the topic that is going around at the moment. And also for my three very talented, bright young nephews - who are still far away from the end of their academic years!)


  1. air kisses... ;)

    thank God. Thank god someone has sense...

  2. Yay Yashodhara! Love you more than ever for this one:) Big Hug!

  3. Lovely honest post ! I can somewhat identify because I was also one of those who would make it look easy by just studying the last minute and goofing around otherwise.

    But I've noticed that those who didn't go to XYZ "top" colleges think differently - they wish they'd studied harder etc. I think some of it is regret in hindsight, you always want what you didn't have.(Hindsight's always 20/20)

    For now I'm confused, I've always wanted Poppin to be happy first and not be pressurised. But the more I'm reading these posts the more confused I'm getting. What does make a child happy? What would I know?

    Should I swim against the tide or should I give in to the collective? After all so many parents can't be wrong can they? Am I setting my child up for aiming low in life..?

    Dunno, and I don't want to ramble here forever. If I get some clarity I'll do a post. I hope I do, the day is not far enough when I have to make choices for Poppin, her school and so on.

  4. Great post... I was quite the opposite though. I used to study last minute even for the the big exams and somehow scrape through. I think no one was more surprised I got into the college and MBA institutes that I did than my parents. And this is one of the cases where the grass is not green on the other side - I loved my twenties and wouldn't change a thing. And I would be thrilled if my kids can have the same experience...

  5. @ poppins: well whether you do well or not in school and whether you make money or not - none of it is a guarantee of happiness.

    those who did well and got through top colleges and dream jobs - say Y and myself, realised after it was achieved that this was not such a big deal. its not what got us happiness. family gives happiness ultimately. friends make you complete.

    those who havent achieved/made money/come first - might also be unhappy. unfortunately, here, they also have the regret of not having done well. its something they havent tried and want to know if that would have got better results. its part hindsight. i would guarantee you that if they were given a chance to turn back time, and did better/made more money/came first, they MIGHT still not find contentment.

    that is a diff ball game altogether.. for that you need to look in and figure out what you want. i am not quite there yet - but read Tara's last few posts and you will know what i mean. nothing is a guarantee of happiness - least of all success.

    sorry to hog ur space Y.

  6. MM: Air kisses, it seems! Bah! :-)

    Dipali: Thank you, darling.

    Poppins: The only thing I realized was - I wasn't ever happy until I achieved the next milestone. And then happiness was always shortlived because there was another milestone to fight for. That can't even be called happiness, na? The only thing that has made me truly happy is the last few months with Peanut. Solution? Encourage Peanut and Poppins to become mothers (am KIDDING!)

    Ro: It's so great that you feel that way about your twenties :-)

    MM: You said it! And I agree - In fact, I've read something by Osho (who always exaggerates to make a point) - those who are poor at least have hope - those who are rich discover that money does not make them happy, and so are even more miserable :-). And please, YOU of all people, apologizing for hogging comment space? Ha ha ha ha ha. Weren't you the one who said 'don't apologize, it's free?' :-)

  7. Shine on Y,

    You have done well in life and will continue to do well. Let it roll...and rock!!!

    Just dont completely stop playing the guitar / basketball...(ahem!! common passions)


  8. Y,

    This was a thoughtful post, it's true that once in the rat race, we get so used to looking for the next milestone we forget about enjoying life and what we really want to do - they do say that whether you win or lose in the rat race, at the end of the day you remain a rat.

    Thankfully, motherhood has a great way of putting some perspective back.

  9. I always wanted to be someone like you. And after reading this post. I still think the same. I could never movtivate myself. The self movitivation part has always been very low in me. And I always wondered what goes in the minds of people like you, who got everything they wanted and worked for it....

    Awesome post btw

  10. Yes, motherhood does change one's perspective so much. Puts things in proper place. Sometimes it's hard to remember the person one was before. As for happiness, I think it's only the present that can make one happy. To do whatever one is doing, whether it is goofing off, or working hard, if you are convinced about it, you are happy.

  11. Delurking here to say that you might have been talking about me!!! I wasnt exactly the class clown, but the girl who topped only English always and did moderately ok in the other subjects..then during my Class 10 boards, because of that extended study holiday we got, I put in some extra effort and topped the class...the complete dark horse..shocking everyone around..needless to say myself too! After that I was on a roll...became an academically oriented girl..I remember that one ocassion when I realised I had morphed into that semi nerd..we had a class test on a Monday and I was astounded to hear myself refusing an offer of a movie as I had to study!! I topped every school / college exam ranks in my CA exam and all that..but one thing I'm grateful for is that I never gave up my music, my reading and all that throughout...was one of those enthu types that turned out at all the culturals conducted...won those allrounder awards et all..only after I started to work that my music has taken a back seat.
    So I guess what's really important is to ensure that academics doesnt become the only thing you do...and its important to be happy doing what you're may be that academics is your only forte..and you're happy doing that..then so be it!
    I didnt have too many friends growing up..for entirely different reasons...certainly not because my acads came in the way...but the thing is that I think what I have achieved is a big deal...and I am content in the knowledge that I did a whole host of other stuff and yet managed to do decently well academically!
    Phew...I might as well have turned that into a post..sorry to have hogged up all that space!

  12. you know how i thought this would end? that you were giving up your career to stay home with peanut.
    great post. me too, i only discovered my real potential in college but luckily i had plenty of time to enjoy my early twenties. i still wish i'd known some of the stuff i know now back then though.
    hindsight's always 20/20 huh?

  13. i think all of us make TRYING to be happy a goal rather than just BEING happy. U can choose to BE HAPPY this moment and the next moment and the next... then what you are doing or not doing does not matter beyond being another way to while away time. try it.

  14. Arrow: Let's jam together sometime then :-) - you outclass me on the guitar I'm sure, but I'll beat you at basketball!

    Bird's Eye View: Exactly. I'm a rat. But I think I can be a happy rat.

    Childwoman: Thank you. Glad you liked it.

    Banno: Yes, well said.

    Gooddaysunshine: Not at all! It was a good read.

    Mona: Ha ha. No. Not staying at home if I can help it. But I might have thought otherwise if we didn't have decent, trustworthy help.

    Anon: Thank you for the wise words. You forgot to leave your name! Who are you?

  15. @Y: LOL now there's a thought ! Let's hope they wait until they're out of their teens before experiencing this particular "joy" however :)

    Although you never did have the pressure to perform at the very top from your parents did you? I should think not, it was all driven internally.

    While obviously it would have been great had you not stressed so much and spent more time doing fun things, on the brighter side you're done with all that hard work ! Now all you have to do is relax and play the guitar :)

    @MadMomma: Yep that's my whole point. Doing well or not doing well at school does not guarantee happiness in life.

    Success is not what guarantees happiness but NOT being atleast moderately succesful is bound to create unhappiness except in the most evolved people. I think ultimately your family's definition of success and even the child's own definition/interpretation of success is what brings some happiness.

    I don't even know where I'm going with this or whether I even have a point (yes trolls come on !)..

  16. Very thoughtful post..introspective and optimistic. But to me it is not just abt topping and slogging for it., it is abt doing your best in whatever u r doing. whether it is the all important multicrore project or just a simple task of hanging a picture on the wall. don't we want both to look the best? and not abt things that r visible but also abt things that are not. If I am stitching a petticoat, I can afford to do zigzag running stitches, it won't be seen . but perfectionism is even doing that straight and right not because one is having an OCD but it is more abt self satisfaction. If hard work & rat race makes me happy, I am for it but if it is taking me away from my hobbies and what I would be rather doing, then I will give the hard work a miss.
    very valid point u made abt kids making all the difference- all priorities change after that!!! kids become the biggest achievement and focus of life. sorry for hogging your space.

  17. Poppins: Ha ha ha. Yes, let's wait till they're out of their teens.
    On the question as to whether there was pressure from the family - definitely. In fact, in my family, it's a joke that no achievement is really celebrated - the phrase used airily when something good happens is 'It's expected'. Yes, I know it's not really a funny joke. You reading this, ma?

    Itchy: Ah, welcome, welcome. And please don't apologize for hogging space! And I guess yes, it's ultimately about deciding what you want to do and putting your heart and energy into that. This is really making me even more introspective. Will do a follow up post next week, I think!

  18. hmm...i guess you just put into words which a lot of people feel. atleast I do.

    touches a chord even more, cuz just last week heard that a senior of mine from MBA school committed suicide ! Just a coupla years after graduating.... cant shake the feeling of imagining someone you know, sat next to, saw for 2 years, suddenly is not around. Could never understand why, but yeah - pressure for everyone to be like a assembly line product might have somethin to do with it...

  19. Great post Y, but one I cant identify with. For one, never topped anything in my life. Always scrapped through by the skin of my teeth, even though IQ tests conducted by worried mother proved to have some humungous shake the earth levels. Never was so involved in career, happily threw jobs up in the air as soon as they began boring me. I must learn something from you young uns. Maybe it would help the brat not become a wastrel like his mother.

  20. What you have articulated here are the kind of reflections I have once in a while. To be honest, I feel that doing well academically is taking the easier path to glory - especially in the society we have in India. Most of us are focused on being successful - it is easier to be successful by studying hard and doing the normal corporate job well than to leave it all and go down the road less traveled. We are wiser once we have gone through it. Hopefully, being wiser helps us to guide the adults of tomorrow to shape their lives as they really want it to be, and not just be driven by expectations of others.

  21. You know what? All of you that have these apprehensions about your kids being over-pressurized and unhappy, or even missing out on fun things, ... the solution is simple. - GET OUT OF DELHI AND CALCUTTA AND BOMBAY AND (I don't really know if it's the same in ) MADRAS!

    Life in smaller towns is so much more relaxed!

    When my kids were growing up, I actually had one family member deriding me on the way they spoke and actually, in so many words, accusing me of not giving them the best opportunities which, according to him, were available only in the RAJDHANI!

    Me, I've had no regrets. They grew up in the littlest of towns, (you couldn't even call them towns, villages more likely!) JK Gram, NAD Karanja, Dunlop Estate. And anyone who knows them also knows what wonderful people they are.

    We never felt the need to pressure them to do well. Of course we nagged them to study. But it was always, "Do your best. That is all that matters. Even after that, if you don't do well, even fail, it's ok, because we, you, know you put your best foot forward."

    Perhaps that was garnered by my own father's attitude. - He would give us 2 (a measely 2) rupees for every subject we failed in. And of course, I was usually richer than my siblings!!!

    But coming back to my two. They actually had fun growing up and actually enjoyed their studies. Substandard schools, according to Delhi standards, I suppose, sub-standard teachers even, but thay both excelled in their classes. Part of it, I'll admit, was the lack of competition, as few of their classmates were very highly motivated. But they both did very well in their CBSE board exams. 98 and 76 percent respectively were pretty good, at least I thought so.

    Fun? they could have learnt a sport or a musical instrument if they'd wanted to, but they preferred to hang out with friends, go on picnics, climb some hills, go on camps, rapelling, target-shooting with an air-gun, all whenever it took their fancy (mostly!) and unchaperoned by an adult!... I think - I HOPE - they had fun!

    The bane of our problems, IMO, is the metros in our country. Life is so fast and overcompetitive. Even if their families stay out of it, kids feel the pressure. At the same time, they realize they're missing out on all the fun that's out there. The bright city lights, the discos, the movies, ... it's all there, beckoning seductively. And this poor kid plods on, wondering if he'll make anything of his life, knowing that the monster, FAILURE lurks round the corner.

    That's not what a kid should be thinking about! But it's a disease we have in India. If our kids don't excell, if their salaries don't run into the lakhs per month, our prestige is at stake. Deny it if you want, you parents, but that's how it is.

    STOP IT! Keeping up with the Joneses is bad enough, but keep it to how many diamonds you have, or how big your house is. YOU DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT TO EXTEND IT TO YOUR KIDS. NO WAY!

    Sorry, guys, but this is something I've always felt strongly about!

    Take my advice - GET OUT OF THE METROS!

  22. Y: I think it is the other way gutar skills are restricted to songs with 4 chords...and gawking at the gang dishing out RHCP covers...but I think I play basketball well. To be absolutely honest, it was your group in school playing ball during the break that inspired me to take up the game...especially the tall guy who was also the line monitor for IP House suring assembly...trivia on nostalgia :-)


  23. Y, so sorry for that outburst! I'm afraid my experiences as a teacher and what I've observed in my students have led me to feel so strongly ...

  24. I absolutely adore you.

  25. I also owe an abject apology to my Dad. "a measely 2 rupees"? It was a fortune back then! Would buy us a movie, a bun-somosa (a bun cut into half and sandwiched with a huge samosa and mint and tamarind chutnies... Yum!) And a coke...

    Sorry, Daddy!

  26. Hey Y...came across this post and really enjoyed reading it....hope you are doing great....




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