I failed, so what?
He was looking for a way out of his misery. And he found one. Sachin Kumar (18) hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his East Delhi home last week. This, for not achieving ‘conventional’ academic success in his Class XII results.
Eighteen years ago, Saurav Pandit too could have done the same — let failure get the better of him. Instead, it built another muscle. “I flunked my first year of engineering,” says Pandit. “All my friends were topping their respective streams. I was topping from the bottom.”
Close to two decades later, Pandit has proved that he might not have been a good examinee, but he was a good learner. At 35, he is national manager of a portfolio of products at one of the world’s largest software companies. And, he also packs home a salary of over Rs 1.5 lakh a month.
Success — achievers like Pandit have come to learn — has nothing to do with one’s score-card as a student. There is a life (and a success story) beyond academic failure. So for every Kumar buckling under the weight of poor scores and humiliation, there is — fortunately — a youngster who shows resilience; one who discovers the constructive uses of failure.
“Abraham Lincoln in a letter once asked his son’s teacher to teach him ‘to learn to lose and to also enjoy winning’. Our belief system seems to have clearly erased the former as an option,” says Professor Shyam B. Menon, an educationist and now Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University.
Those who learnt to lose and built defences against defeat early in life clearly have an edge, believes Neelav Samrat De (35). De took five-and-half years to complete his engineering course of four years. He is currently a director at the Confederation of Indian Industry. “I learnt to not let my grades or marks affect my ambition. That resilience has helped me at several points in my life since. In hindsight, I have no regrets,” he says.
“Last year, an Indian hit by the downturn in the US killed his whole family in Los Angeles. An IIT Chennai graduate and an MBA from the University of California, Karthik Rajaram was someone our education system dreams of producing. He was academically bright, but not tuned to handle failure. So what good are your marks anyway?” adds Menon.
Even as most people remain obsessed with toppers, Pandit is doing his bit to recognise and accord importance to those perceived as academic non-achievers. “I try and look beyond school and college performance at the time of recruiting new employees for the company. Marks, and I know this best, are not a true reflection of one’s potential,” he says.
This is a small but a significant step to ensure that young dreams like Kumar’s don’t end up in a body bag.
“I was forced to work harder than the rest”
Mahesh Vyas, MD & CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy
My fairly happy schooling ended rudely with unexpectedly low marks. But this was only the beginning of a difficult period. My low marks landed me in a college where I had no friends. I went through a culture shock that led to my formal education coming to a painfully prolonged end. I flunked examinations in college repeatedly and sunk to the bottom of the heap of academics.
I guess I did not like the college textbooks, the learning of proofs by rote or the intense practice of problems. I was a science student and, I did not like the way science was taught. I disliked the examinations and, of course, the marks I got. It was silly of course, to be so upset with the system.
Happily, my silly approach towards formal education (all because of one set of bad marks in SSC) did not stop my education. I was happiest when I was reading an interesting book, mostly a non-
fiction from the collection of Dr Narottam Shah, the noted economist who set up the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Shah was a voracious reader with a fantastic personal library.
He was also quite generous in sharing his library and I took full advantage of this. He was a terrific source of inspiration for me as he was for many others. He was a dropout from college himself, who re-joined later and went on to complete his PhD thesis.
Soon I started working for him at the CMIE. I taught myself economics, statistics and finance. CMIE has been a great place to learn and work. Shah reposed faith in my ability to learn and so did many of my senior colleagues. This helped me focus my energies on my work.
The lack of a good academic record cannot remain a handicap forever. The damage of my college days could not be wished away but it could be offset with hard work and perseverance. I was forced to work harder than the rest. As a result, work itself became more interesting because of this unique approach that I had towards it — a means of proving my credentials where I had none to begin with.
While this has, I believe, done me good, I still aspire to do a good course in chemistry, if I still could.
“Today, I rarely reflect on my education”
Gautam Bhardwaj | Director, Invest India Economic Foundation
The class twelve mark-sheet shimmered at the edges. An aggregate score of 95 per cent! Suddenly, a meeting for an admission at the Shri Ram School 14 years ago flashed before my eyes. I very vividly remembered how petrified I was that the discussions would somehow turn to my academic qualifications. Arpana (bless her) understood, and held my hand tightly throughout the proceedings. I double-checked the name on the mark-sheet I was holding. Aastha Bhardwaj it read. My daughter.
Perhaps there’s more to the genetic theory than has been discovered. Perhaps it skips a generation, is Aastha’s reasoning. Perhaps the mother’s genes are all that really count, quips Arpana with a wicked glint in her eyes. They could be right. After all, all I had to show for higher education were two incomplete years of college (I ran away to Delhi a week before my first-year exams at a college in Mumbai. And then ran away to Mumbai a week before my first-year exams at a college in Delhi). I obviously needed help (and a larger allowance for train tickets) since I couldn’t even succeed at dropping out of college in the first attempt.
So I drifted along for a couple of years, trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I lost most of my friends to engineering or medical colleges (maybe these were the only two options available 20 years ago). My parents meanwhile resigned themselves to theatrical sighs and occasional reproachful glances over the dinner table. They also developed impressive skills at rapidly changing the topic if any “so-what-is-your-son-doing?” questions cropped up at the army officers mess at MHOW.
I moved back to Delhi, did a small role in “Fauji” (naturally) and a series of odd-jobs...till I met Prithvi Haldea. Then I stopped regretting my academics, stopped avoiding all those new doctors and engineers and stopped looking for ‘the’ job. I instead became self-employed. Now, twenty years out, as I run a modest policy research and consulting practice that gives me enough time for cricket with Pranav and several other 7-year olds, I rarely reflect on my education. Or the lack of it. And I’m very glad that I heeded Prithvi’s advice and focussed on my strengths. And followed my heart.
Perhaps the only thing I feel unqualified to do today is to advice Aastha regarding college.
“My friends were lost to me”
Samar Halarnkar | Managing Editor, Hindustan Times
It’s not easy to talk about being a failure.
I got a miserable 19/100 in mathematics in my 12th standard exams. What you’re reading now took me 26 years to really go public (I first revealed this in 2006) with what then seemed like the end of the world.
Overnight, everything changed. My self-esteem vanished. My friends were lost to college — and to me.
I guess they were ashamed of hanging out with someone who had “plugged”, as we called it. I, too, was ashamed of being with them, wondering what they really thought of me. To a teenager, that can pretty much seem like the end of the world.
I spent many weeks at home in a darkened room, staring at the wall and wondering what my parents were thinking.
The thing is, they said nothing about those miserable 19 marks.
It’s not that they weren’t supportive. They told me that it didn’t matter.
But of course it did.
I have no idea what they told their friends, what they said to each other; especially given my father’s long road into the middle class.
One of 10 children, my father got his first slippers as a teen, studied under streetlights, went to night law-school and worked days as a government clerk in Mumbai.
I do know they could have said a lot. For starters: “We told you so.”
Maths was always my bugbear; always. I never scored above 40. But with a typically teenage it-won’t-happen-to-me swagger, I was sure of somehow getting 35.
Never mind that I couldn’t even solve a quadratic equation (I still can’t). Never mind that trigonometry was — and is — as alien as Tagalog.
When I couldn’t cope in school, I was advised tuition. That didn’t help. It’s just that I never really cared. Somehow, I told myself, I would pass.
And so, doomsday rolled in on a dark evening in 1980, under a magnificent rain tree. In the light of a candle, I felt my blood run cold. Pasted on a notice board, I saw my marks — and felt my future ebb away.
But doomsday didn’t turn out to be so bad.
There were many months of despair and soul searching, much vagrancy.
Here’s what worked (though it won’t for everyone): I stayed away from maths; I focused on my strengths (like writing, though journalism wasn’t really an honourable option those days); I spent
time with those who didn’t care I was a failure — my family; and as I often have since then, realised there are millions worse off than I.
Today, I can say: I failed. So what?
“I was surrounded by demons”
Gautam Chikermane | Business Editor, Hindustan Times
The second time I flunked I was better prepared. But no amount of preparation could give me the strength to walk the 100 yards from the college gate to the class.
More so, when you’re part of a rock band that has won prizes all over the country — folks want to borrow the latest Bruce Springsteen album, you want to avoid them and the whole thing turns into a clumsy ordeal for a gawky teenager seeking an answer to just one question: why me, God, why me?
But I had neither Dire Straits nor Bryan Adams to protect me the first time. That was in school, a boarding school, where friendships are built for life. Overnight, I had to leave my friends, my school, my house. Within moments, the thrill of breaking bounds to watch Amitabh Bachchan, the joys of buying kulfi we weren’t allowed to over the boundary wall, panting like an athlete across the 9 km crosscountry stretch as we considered the ‘chicks’ on the way…everything was history.
I was alone.
A dark past.
I was surrounded by demons, demons of my own making. In hindsight, I was running away from my old world, trying to create a new one as I ran. This was a world where my friends pitied me, my rivals looked at me with scorn, the neighbourhood kids — to whom I was a hero until yesterday — laughed at me. This was a world where I had no friends, nobody to speak to but my parents, who, luckily, were 12 hours and two airports away and we had no phone at home to speak into. My grandfather, a pillar of strength, was my sole refuge.
As I look back, this was a world that didn’t exist. It was a dark fantasy crafted by my worst fears. The truth was, I had failed — but that was it. Most important, none of my friends, peers or family thought me to be any less. They continued to enjoy my poetry, my music, and admired my idiosyncrasies of steering away from the beaten path and carving my own.
Nothing had changed for them. But it took me my first job three years later — when I started all over again — to realise that.